The Socalled Movie (2010).  Dir. Garry Beitel.  Prod, Barry Lazar (reFrame Films) & Ravida Din (The National Film Board of Canada). 86 min.

Reviewed by Louis KaplanThe Socalled Movie

In dispensing with the pretext of a continuous narrative and dividing his biopic on Josh Dolgin into eighteen parts to create a fragmented and kaleidoscopic portrait of this multi-faceted Montreal musician, Garry Beitel’s The Socalled Movie has made a symbolic statement that registers in a Jewish key.  For the structure of the film signals in Jewish numerological terms (where Chai/Life = 18) that it is the superabundance of life itself with all of its gusto and exuberance that this project seeks to capture in documenting the on- and off-stage antics of its restless musical subject.  Tracking Dolgin at home and on tour, the film illustrates how he has blended the genres of klezmer, hip hop, and funk into a potent and often rambunctious mix.

What allows for these surprising musical encounters is the technique of sampling so deftly deployed by Dolgin on his Akai MPC1000.  Socalled’s samples not only produce unusual musical connections; they also make these cultural artifacts come to life again.  Very early in the film, we see the mixologist demonstrating to Beitel how he has managed to sample a looped phrase from a Yiddish singer from Vilna in the 1930’s in tandem with a funky riff from the 1970’s.  He adjusts their speeds to meet in the key of F minor and he lays down a danceable beat as a backdrop.   Josh relishes this “eureka” moment of surreal juxtaposition—“And they go together.  It’s absurd!”  To rephrase Lautréamont, this is like the chance meeting of a Hassidic niggun and a hip hop rap on the dissecting table.  But what is left unspoken in the film is that Dolgin’s final arrangement of the song draws heavily on the traditional Yiddish folk tune Klingen Gleker (“Bells Are Chiming”) composed by Yisroel Glatshteyn who later died in the Warsaw ghetto.  This is just one example of Socalled’s rejuvenation of the Yiddish musical past in order to make it speak in today’s popular idiom.  Dolgin also shows Beitel the scratchy record of the vaudeville legend Aaron Lebedev that started it all for him and that produced his first sample.  Responding to Lebedev’s breaks from the contemporary perspective of hip hop, Socalled found his musical calling and niche.

The Socalled Movie makes a point of introducing us to the wide circle of artists and influences that have shaped Dolgin’s quirky vision and that, in some cases, have extended his range well beyond the pale of Jewish musical settlement.  For instance, we meet the former James Brown trombonist Fred Wesley, who functions as Socalled’s godfather of funk.  Wesley’s collaboration with Socalled is covered in the section aptly titled “My Hero” as well as in the concert footage of their side project Abraham, Inc. at the legendary Apollo Theatre in New York.   Wesley also is featured in the “Fred Fantasy” segment that is one of the two dream-like clips where Dolgin tries his own hand at directing and that temporarily hijack the film from the documentary mode.  Then there is Dolgin’s role in resurrecting the career of ninety-four year old lounge lizard Irving Fields of Bagels and Bongos fame.  Clearly, the boundary-breaking Dolgin draws inspiration from Fields’ earlier mash-ups.  In the “Irving” segment, Fields shows off the silly YouTube ditty that Dolgin encouraged him to compose in order to reach the online generation.

Interestingly, the filmmaker’s original intention was to record the “Klezmer Cruise” where Dolgin led a merry band of musical collaborators and Yiddish enthusiasts down Ukraine’s Dneiper River in a journey celebrating this lost Eastern European folk culture.  Some of this footage is included in the section “My Grandfather’s River” as well as in Socalled’s second filmic interlude, “Ukranian Fantasy.”   These segments feature another important collaborator and mentor for Socalled—the virtuoso klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer.   Because the film focuses only on the last few years, it does not represent fully the formative role played by Krakauer in the development of Dolgin’s career: including Socalled’s participation in the group Klezmer Madness and their early collaboration (along with Sophie Solomon and Michael Alpert) on the innovative Hip Hop Khasene (2003) that deconstructed and reinvented the Jewish wedding ritual.

The film’s finale features Socalled’s anthem “These are the Good Old Days,” pieced together through snippets taken from a variety of rousing performances around the world.  Twisting time, this song’s message catapults nostalgia into the present and affirms the moment “because it’s only gonna get worse.”  The happy apocalyptics of Dolgin’s lyrics here are typical of his mordant and ironic Jewish wit.  If there is a certain amount of nostalgia for the lost culture of the shtetls of Eastern Europe or the vaudeville of the Yiddish theaters in New York, it is undercut by such reverse logic and comic reasoning.  It reminds us that Dolgin’s zany and performative shtick belongs to the venerable tradition of Yiddish humor and popular variety entertainment.  Beitel captures this important component of Socalled’s persona throughout the film whether looking (and laughing) at his cracked caricatures, his on-stage banter and cutting up, or his satirical lyrics.  The Socalled Movie also engages Dolgin’s queer sexuality in the “Just Another Old Master” segment, where he talks frankly about growing up in the closet with little access to erotica.  This experience leads him to organize a campy evening of “Socalled’s Porno Pop” at the Cinema L’Amour in Montreal in homage to another one of his offbeat heroes, the pornographic filmmaker Toby Ross.

In assuming the stage name and persona of Socalled, Josh Dolgin has forged a dubious identity that questions authenticity and that revels in a certain queering of the codes.  One highpoint of Beitel’s documentary is when he draws Dolgin out regarding the central and profound irony by which he lives and plays—the “love-hate” relationship that drives this reanimating project in Yiddishkeit.  “I don’t care about God, I don’t believe in the Bible.  I hate religion, it makes me angry, but I realize that [Judaism] created this culture that I love.”  In other words, we are indebted to a cultural Jew and iconoclastic atheist for producing some of the most creative alternative Jewish music today—and it is probably on account of this very reason.

Louis Kaplan is Professor and Chair of the Department of Visual Studies at the University of Toronto Mississauga as well as a member of both the Graduate Department of Art and the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.