I got the opportunity to interview actress Kelly Marie Tran and three of the poets from Summertime. These are always fun to do. Unless the movie stinks. And driving there, I was a bit worried. Neither my wife nor I are fans of slam poetry, and the idea that they’d be able to pull off over 20 different characters' stories intertwining on the varied streets of L.A...just felt like an ambitious project that could fall flat.
I shouldn’t have doubted director Carlos Lopez Estrada. He did Blindspotting, which was one of my favorite movies of 2018. He directed Tran in Raya and the Last Dragon, and the two talked about this project (Tran is a producer).
For all the folks that unfairly gave Lin-Manuel grief because he didn’t have enough people of color in his terrific In the Heights...they’ll be happy this cast has a majority of characters that are people of color. It also has a number of gay characters, and it’s a very diverse cast. I was pleasantly surprised when the two cops were mistaking a talented artist for a graffiti tagger, it was a white guy they were harassing and pushing up against the wall (and it was a scene also peppered with a few laughs, as many scenes were).
For the life of me, I just can’t figure out how a movie that had so many people reading poems, rhyming, rapping, dropping knowledge, and telling their truths -- with such heartbreaking stories -- could at the same time be so uplifting. Maybe because you loved that these characters had their friends, who provided a great support system. Maybe it’s because we felt their cathartic release getting this off their chests. Maybe it’s because the poems were just so damn clever. In fact, when Paolina Acuna-Gonzalez is being lectured by her mom on why she shouldn’t wear red lipstick -- it becomes a dance sequence in the street that rivaled the opening scene in La LaLand where they’re dancing on the freeway in traffic.
Early on, I thought Tyris Winter was going to be the character that annoyed me. Yet when he’s complaining about the price of food at a place that no longer sells cheeseburgers, and pretends to choke, and writes a negative Yelp review (“Ode to Yelp”)...it may have been a tad over the top. But on his quest through L.A. to find a burger, he and his big afro win a place in your heart. When he does his poem about his homelife, he breaks your heart.
Two rappers (Bryce Banks, Austin Antoine) that ply their trade on the streets for cash, are a blast. Every interaction they have with someone, leaves you in stitches. And when they’re lucky enough to get into the studio and a producer lectures them on rapping about something they love, instead of bragging about money -- it’s one of the funniest raps you’ll ever hear. The audience I was surrounded by couldn’t stop laughing, either.
There’s an interesting scene on a bus where Mila Cuda is playing a rhyming game with kids she’s babysitting, and she launches into “Hey, I’m Gay” at a male passenger who takes umbrage to an older lesbian couple that started kissing.
Maia Mayor has a segment that’s a blast. Her poem “I Want to be Good at Something” reminded me of Norbert Butz singing “I Want Great Big Stuff” on the stage production of Dirty RottenScoundrels. The reason she wants to be good at something is, her ex is with a woman that appears perfect, and as she stalks them, she sees posters for hot yoga, a book shop that makes her think perhaps she should have read Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and others.
Marquesha Babers has thoughts about her ex, and when she shows up at his house to slam him for some of the things he said about her weight and looks...it’s brilliantly done. In the middle of the tirade I wanted to throw my fist in the air and scream, “You go, girl!”
It’s such a powerful scene, I’d like to see high school teachers take it and show it to classes, as it might help teenagers with relationships and bullying.
Now, one therapist in the movie helped me with my relationship. She wrote the book “How to Rap Battle With Your Demons.” And the following day when my wife and I got into an argument, I challenged her to a rap battle (in my opinion, she lost).
Every time a new scene would start up, the critic in me would say, “Okay, this is the segment that won’t work for me.”
And while it was a bit uneven a few times, and a scene or two may have been clunky, this entire movie is just a joyous experience.
When it was in Koreatown, for a scene with older Korean’s dancing to hip-hop that a young dishwasher is playing...I thought that couldn’t possibly go somewhere interesting. But in arrives Tyris to help elevate the scene and make you dig it.
One weak link was a tagger (Jason Alvarez), but he did help link many stories together, and it gave the filmmakers a chance to do an interesting montage of various Los Angeles murals. There was another montage that showed various places in L.A. that reminded me of the opening of Nightcrawlers, where we get a montage of various stores and neon lights, as the city starts to come alive in the early morning.
Bene’t Benton and Amaya Blankenship wrote the poem “Home Is…” and it is interesting to see/hear about their homelife, and it makes you reminisce about your own childhood.
At a certain point, the critic in me wondered if they were going to bite off more than they could chew, with so many characters being introduced. Yet each of them brought something interesting to the table (well, aside from the waitress that brought $14 toast to the table, but I digest).
There’s a segment at Smiley’s Burgers (of course Tyris made it there), that gave me painful flashbacks to my high school years working at McDonald’s. As the various angry customers complain, Gordon IP gets angry himself.
Raul Herrera first shows up, similar to how Lin-Manuel showed up selling shaved ice in In theHeights. He’s selling things, and mentioned he has four other jobs. One of them is the limo driver that drives the rappers (it may have only been one day, but they’ve become famous). When he takes a few of the folks from Smiley’s, out to a beautiful view of L.A., he gives us the poem “Clouds” which my wife adored. His message was inspirational and his delivery felt more like an impassioned speech than reciting a poem.
So, we just got Summer of Soul last week. A few weeks before that, it was In the Heights. Now with this, it’s a trifecta of wonderful summer films. Each love letters to their respective cities and diverse characters. Folks, this is what art is all about.
It’s playing at the Hillcrest Landmark and my favorite theatre -- the Angelika Film Center. It might only be there for a week, so head on over.
4 stars out of 5.