The problem with the myth of the tortured artist – or rather, one of the many, many problems – is that although suffering sometimes leads to great art, it doesn’t come with any guarantees. Not every path leads to greatness. Sometimes misery only begets more misery, and dreamers wake up more often than not.
So although we don’t go to movies about underdog musicians in the hopes that we will witness their failure, the better films in the genre – films like Patti Cake$ – do at least remind us that failure is within their grasp. Writer/director Geremy Jasper’s film wears many of the feel good accoutrements of the genre but does so in an environment crawling with resentment, shame and shattered expectations.
Patti Cake$ isn’t a depressing movie, but it could have gone there. Danielle Macdonald plays Patti, a New Jersey girl living with her burnout mother and invalid grandmother, working two jobs to pay family insurance bills that are long since past due. She’s unpopular, she’s publicly ridiculed, and she burns all that fuel in fiery blasts of rap. She unleashes torrents of clever rhymes about her problems, her dreams, and her persona – “Killer P” – who embodies all the strengths that she is, otherwise, reminded that she might not have.
Patti and her best friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay) have talent, and eventually they find themselves a comically serious musician who calls himself Basterd (Mamoudou Athie) to lay down their beats. And as they drop tracks together, enlisting the aid of Patti’s raspy-voiced grandmother, Patti Cake$ gives the audience and its characters a welcome respite from this dreary world of local desperation and sullied ambitions.
That would be enough, normally, for a straightforward but satisfying rags-to-riches tale about young, talented people lifting themselves up by their talent and bootstraps. But although Patti Cake$ isn’t afraid of the clichés of the genre – because they exist for a reason, and they still work, damn it – Geremy Jasper’s film doesn’t feel formulaic. Patti is too specific a character for that. She’s as fully realized a creation as any protagonist in recent memory, full of bravado and insecurity, and prone to making understandably stupid mistakes that jeopardize her future.
Perhaps most beautifully, however, she gives in to her shame. It’s easy to tell stories about artists who lose confidence towards the end of Act 2, but it’s harder – and more realistic, and more meaningful – to dramatize an artist’s ongoing, daily, minute-by-minute struggle with insecurity. As played – in an incredible performance – by Danielle Macdonald, Patti is at constant war with her fear of choking, of mockery, and the very plausible possibility that maybe she’s good… but not nearly good enough.
Which brings up another important point: stories about fictional artistic geniuses are tricky because if the audience is going to believe in their talent, their art needs to be legitimately great, or at least extremely promising. In essence, the storyteller is responsible for making many great works of art simultaneously, and if any piece of the showcase comes up short, the whole presentation is a waste of time.
So credit where credit is due: Geremy Gasper gets it right, telling a somewhat familiar but earnest and inspirational underdog story about a great rapper, and doing so with great – or at least, extremely promising – rap music. Patti is a clever lyricist, increasingly honest as her story goes on, and ultimately a resonant and affecting musician. Jheri is more inclined to simplistic, poppy jams, and adds a welcome melodic counterpoint to Patti’s percussive raps, and Basterd’s music kicks a lot of ass too. I would listen to this band even if I didn’t know their story, and I suspect you probably would too.
Patti Cake$ serves a valuable function, and reminds us that these types of stories may have been done before, but only because the world is full of them. Every successful artist started somewhere, and even though most of them don’t achieve superstardom, their lives all have meaning. Patti Cake$ approaches the genre from a fresh angle and offers all the satisfying thrills of watching an underdog overcome their frailties and find, if not necessarily success, then at least their own greatness.
Top Photo: Fox Searchlight
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on Canceled Too Soon and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.