Rap Goddess: Danielle Macdonald delivers a breakout performance in Geremy Jasper’s 'Patti Cake$'
If you think rap music is all Straight Outta Compton (2015), this is your 411 (a hip-hop expression for “news”): All hip-hop, including the 1990s “gangsta rap” of F. Gary Gray’s film, originated in 1970s-era New York City. Its rhymes and flow (hip-hop for “cadence”) are the vernacular of the inner city—in cities all over the world. America’s top rap stars are African-American and Latino, and their music, originating in Afro-Caribbean and Latin rhythms, represents dozens of sub-genres, including conscious rap, feminist hip-hop and rap opera. Pop culture is obsessed with hip-hop—ask anybody under the age of 30.
If you are older, catch the movie everybody will be talking about this summer: Geremy Jasper’s debut feature, Patti Cake$, about a white, goddess-sized Jersey gal with hip-hop and “dead presidents” (one hip-hop word for “money”) escape fantasies.
The film will open theatrically on August 19 from Fox Searchlight. It begins with Patti Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald), a.k.a. Patti Cake$, a.k.a. Killa P.’s recurring dream of stardom. When she awakens, Mom reminds her that it is time to get to her bartending gig at the local karaoke bar. The family is saddled with debt from Nana’s hospital bills.
Patti may look like the girl next-door, but she is determined to cross the river that separates her from hip-hop Mecca. “There is no rock ’n’ roll anymore—pop music has appropriated hip-hop music,” Jasper says. “Kayne West was right when he said he’s the biggest rock star in the world, although he got a lot of flack for saying it.” Our interview, on a late spring afternoon in the white, gentrified West Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan is, ironically, marked by the restaurant’s blaring rock ’n’ roll. “Kids today, like Patti, they want to be rap stars,” the director observes.
This is familiar territory for Jasper: “I was a chubby, suburban teenager whose first love was music,” he says, “so I taught myself how to play the guitar and I became a singer.” Jasper hails from New Jersey, not very far from the on-location shoot for Patti Cake$. Like his hero, he lived at home in his 20s. Now over six feet tall, and no longer plump, the 30-something debut writer-director also wrote all the songs for his film, and scored it with help from friend and frequent collaborater Jason Binnick.
He and Binnick collaborated on Outlaws (2015), Jasper’s narrative short, which stars Harvey Keitel as a film director and David Beckham as a lonely wanderer. (You can watch it on YouTube.) “When the producers of that film asked me who I wanted for the lead, I said that my favorite actor was Harvey Keitel, never thinking that I had any chance to actually cast him.” Jasper calls the short his “dry run” for directing a feature. “I’d done music-videos, but I had never worked with a SAG actor,” he explains. “It was a large set, with tents, hundreds of people, and animals and circus performers.”
Shot in Mexico, Outlaws reveals a great deal about the filmmaker’s influences, mainly Sergio Leone and Fellini. “For me, Patti Cake$ is about misfits, about people trying to find their identities,” he says. “There is something about being in that blandness of the suburbs. It’s all strip malls and highways. There is such a lack of color and expression that you feel that there is no art.” Jasper’s Patti has long been an outcast; some still call her by her high-school nickname, “Dumbo Dombroski,” obviously a reference to her weight—but Patti’s talent and tenacity, and her underlying innocence, are irresistible. During a job interview, a catering manager asks her where she wants to be in five years, and Patti flashes a radiant smile; she tells him she wants to be working for him, and he believes her.
Patti finds an adoring fan in her best friend Jerry (Siddharth Dhananjay), an Indian guy who has similar dreams. They hang out and jam on an empty lot where the Manhattan skyline glistens in the distance. Patti’s oldest groupie is her maternal grandmother, Nana (Cathy Moriarity), who is suffering from heart disease; the 23-year-old composes off-color raps for her. At one point, Patti meets Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), a sexy black performer, and together with Jerry they record their first CD. Jerry wears a do-rag, while Basterd, a loner who lives in an abandoned building, prefers leather; his guitar playing is reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix. “This story is about artists who are trying on different guises and trying to figure out who they are,” Jasper observes.
Like many feminine heroes, Patti’s nemesis is her mom, Barb (Bridget Everett). “Bridget is a real diva,” Jasper explains, speaking of the actor’s status as an international cabaret star. “I saw her on Amy Schumer’s show, and I knew she was my Barb.” Everett, who has an outstanding voice, is terrific as Patti’s unhappy, often boozy mom. Barb starts sniping at Patti, as all jealous moms do, after her daughter begins to find herself. Jasper’s deft handling of that largely taboo issue adds great authenticity to his characters. “I had girlfriends who had these kinds of issues,” he says, “and I was able to find that aspect of Barb’s character that way.” Patti Cake$’s rousing theme song, “Tuff Love,” encapsulates the mother-daughter relationship, which improves when Patti discovers her mother’s secret.
Aside from veteran Cathy Moriarity, who made her screen debut in Raging Bull (1980), Jasper’s cast is comprised of up-and-comers, such as Athie, a Yale Drama graduate who appeared in James Ponsoldt’s recent The Circle and will soon be seen in Brie Larson’s upcoming Unicorn Store. “Basterd was going to be a suburban Goth,” Jasper notes, “but Mamoudou made him a rock star.” While Dhananjay makes his screen debut, he was already a rapper when he was cast in Patti Cake$; Jasper found him through his YouTube videos. Danielle Macdonald, who had a major role in Amy Berg’s Every Secret Thing, had never sung a note—and she is Australian. Not only did she have to master a New Jersey accent, she had to learn to put over a hip-hop song. Macdonald does a credible job on both counts.
Jasper credits Sundance Labs for honing his directorial skills. He cites the example of a scene in which Barb and Patti share an intense exchange. “Neither Patti nor Barb have normal Hollywood body types, but they’re stars,” Jasper says. “When I put them together, there was something so towering and bigger than life about Bridget. Danielle felt fragile in comparison, and I knew I had to adjust that. We workshopped the scene at Sundance.” Patti finally stands up to her mother, but she does so slowly, discovering the grit she inherited from two generations of tough broads. Asked about Barb and Nana, and his female-centered story, Jasper replies with a disarming candidness: “They felt like the women I grew up with in New Jersey. I could be related to them.”
Jasper suffers from insomnia, and much of his songwriting for Patti Cake$ was accomplished in the early hours of the morning. After an SFSX screening, heavy storms began sweeping across the country, and Jasper had to get to New York City. Not wanting to risk a delayed flight for his date at the Museum of Modern Art’s New Directors/New Films, he called his producer and asked if they could drive there. They traded shifts, arriving 26 hours later, not much before the evening screening. Jasper says he was never tired.
He has not read any festival reviews, and admits to anxiety about the upcoming theatrical release. “Putting stuff out into the world is scary,” he says. “I feel incredibly vulnerable as an artist.” He is happy to be working with Fox Searchlight: “They are putting it on screens. I didn’t want VOD because the film sounds good and I’m old-school anyway. Movies are a communal experience.”
Patti Cake$’s buzz is that the movie is a crowd-pleaser. Asked about this, Jasper smiles. “Right. Well, what I love about this remark,” he admits, “is that I can say: I want people to feel joy. We can feel all the sadder emotions, but how often do we feel joy while watching a film?” A short pause follows during which the check is paid, and this critic wonders whether her subject expects an answer to his question. “Look, if just one young artist sees my film and thinks, ‘I can do what I want, just like Patti,’” he says, “then I’ve done my job.”