Cool Jewish Curator of the YouTube Generation

11 mins read

Like Matisyahu—the Hasidic reggae/hip-hop singer born Matthew Miller in West Chester, Pennsylvania—Socalled, the funk/hip hop plus klezmer performer born Josh Dolgin in Chelsea, Québec, criss-crosses his Jewishness with black music. But although the 33-year-old Dolgin learned Yiddish after being turned onto an ancient LP of Jewish songs, he would never go anywhere near the religious Matisyahu’s bearded, black-coated orthodoxy. Like many secular Jews, Dolgin loves his roots for reasons that are strictly cultural.

The subject of Garry Beitel’s new feature-length doc, The “Socalled” Movie, Dolgin also ain’t no gangsta. Forget bling, bitches and a real sick Lexus. With his eyeglasses, collegiate sweaters, and thinning curly hair, Dolgin looks like a mathematician. Beitel’s sprightly film, a co-pro between his company, reFrame Films, and the National Film Board, reveals that while the popular rapper is a natural performer, glamour is not his shtick. In one self-deprecating moment, Dolgin jokes that for him show biz is fatigue and sexual frustration. And he recalls the early days when he went by the moniker Heavy J until someone, noting his skinniness, called him Socalled Heavy J, eventually abbreviated to his current handle.

Despite his restrained persona, Dolgin is a high-energy performer so totally plugged into hoodie-wearing, software-finessing contemporary pop culture, Beitel says that the rapper has no patience for the clueless uncool. And yet, Beitel pointed out during a long conversation in a boho Montréal café, this bundle of contradictions deviates from his “ahistorical contemporaries” in that he embodies a certain kind of young creative person who is impeccably au courant and “at the same time has a sweep of history, a cultural scope. He digs for music, for literature, for films, anything that resonates. He brings it back, incorporates it, transforms it, makes it his own.”

Throughout Beitel’s film, he reveals Dolgin’s most treasured finds, and shows him working them into his creative process. For instance, sampling bits of 1930s Yiddish music and 1970s funk, Socalled is amused and amazed by how smoothly he can merge the two. As for his long-time infatuation with funk, it led him to the man he calls his hero: Fred Wesley, the celebrated 67-year-old trombonist who helped create the genre as a sideman with James Brown. At a heightened moment in The “Socalled” Movie, Wesley joins Dolgin’s talented musical posse for a blowout at the hallowed Apollo Theatre, one of several concert scenes in the picture.

We also see Socalled communing with New York City lounge singer Irving Fields (best known for the immortal album Bagels and Bongos), and inducing the 94-year-old to write a song in praise of YouTube. Dolgin, who the film off-handedly reveals as gay, has a jones for another blast from the past, Chicago porn-maker Toby Ross. The latter’s 1970s films become the centrepiece of a Socalled extravaganza in Montréal’s venerable adult theatre the Cinéma L’Amour, which, much to Dolgin’s delight was once a venue for Yiddish cinema. The “porn pop thing,” laughs Beitel, involved gay musicians playing ’50s music about guys falling in love with girls” while man-on-man blowjobs flickered on the screen.

Dolgin’s collaborators and idols include klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer, classical cellist Matt Haimovitz, and Katie Moore, a redheaded, angel-voiced country folk singer he calls the “the voice of Socalled.” Beitel’s film makes it clear that Dolgin the performer often plays second fiddle to the orchestrator and MC of shows that mashup apparently incongruous genres, styles, and people. He has committed himself to subverting the cultural ghettoization that really pisses him off. For Beitel, “Josh is almost like a curator in an interesting kind of way that I found more and more fascinating as I got to know him.” Jewish himself, the moviemaker identifies with the rapper’s embrace of his root culture without restricting himself to it. For Beitel, “We all need to step into the world and encounter other voices that we interact with and are transformed by.”

Nothing if not eclectic, Socalled is a musician, a composer-arranger, a cartoonist, a photographer, a magician, and a filmmaker. So much is bubbling away in this peripatetic DIY renaissance man, Beitel built the film into 12 chapters he calls short films. The segments, varying in length, cover different aspects of Dolgin’s life and creative process. For two of the pieces, Beitel turned over his crew to Dolgin, who came up with fantasy items, one of them featuring Fred Wesley displaying cool nonchalance in a bizarre situation. “This is a film about you,” Beitel told his subject, “and here’s an opportunity to create in the medium that you aspire to.” Beitel recalls that even when Socalled wasn’t in charge, “There were times when he would try to direct by saying ‘I don’t want to talk about that now. Just film what I’m doing. If I talk about it too much, I’m not going to be able to do it.’”

It’s not surprising that François Girard’s 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993) is on Beitel’s list of all time favourites. “I wouldn’t compare Josh to Glenn Gould,” he told me, “but at the same time I felt it would be interesting to explore him from a kaleidoscopic perspective. When you watched 32 Short Films, there was a sense of anticipation, and you never know what’s coming with Josh. You think you know him, and then there’s something completely different that he wants to tell you about and invite you into. I wanted to capture that process.”

Beitel’s film developed organically out of his long-time relationship with Dolgin. They first met twelve years ago when the burgeoning artist took Beitel’s doc workshop course at McGill University. “He was engaging,” the now 60-year-old moviemaker recalls, “there was an innocent curiosity to him, and the hierarchies sort of folded right away. We could just connect in the way that older and younger people sometimes have relationships.”

The “Socalled” Movie began to take shape when Beitel ran into Dolgin at an event where he and his father, a former diplomat, were seeking participants for a klezmer cruise they had organized. Dolgin’s suggestion that the boat trip from Kiev to Odessa along the Dnieper River would be an interesting shoot prompted Beitel to approach the NFB’s Ravida Din, who backed the idea. In fact, Beitel recalls, she “felt the moment was good to do an entire film about Josh.” After all, the NFB had produced Ben Steiger Levine’s Socalled video, The Good Old Days, and it’s a hit on YouTube.

Popular in Europe and the U.S. with world and alternative music fans, Socalled’s “video” “You Are Never Alone”, also directed by Steiger-Levine, has drawn over two million hits on YouTube. That’s one of the reasons why on March 16, The “Socalled” Movie had its U.S. premiere on the web service, one of four films YouTube spotlighted to launch its new Video on Demand offering. For 99 cents, only Americans could download the film for 24 hours. The event was celebrated with a lunch party and Socalled performance, at the South by South West Festival in Austin, Texas.

Naturally, Beitel is both excited and apprehensive about the deal the NFB negotiated with YouTube. “In some older way of thinking, it’s an absurd thing to do,” he says. “You spend three years crafting a film, and then people can have it for 99 cents. At the same time, what an opportunity to reach an international market in an unprecedented way.”

During an era when doc filmmakers’ reliance on diminishing television financing, which “everybody hates,” is being affected by TV’s downward spiral toward obsolescence, “YouTube is positioning itself to become a new medium,” Beitel says. “It’s this little box, but the box is getting bigger.”

And a hip-hopping, tech-loving rapper with a passion for old-time black and Jewish music is positioned on the cusp of the looming media upheaval.

Cool.

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