“Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop” Isn’t quite like any concert film you’ve ever seen. That’s no accident.
Danny Hoch, the rap-loving chameleon whose high-energy one-man shows have toured all around the country, wanted to bring his most popular one-man show to the big screen. He prepared by watching solo films of all the usual suspects (John Leguizamo, Eric Bogosian, Lily Tomlin). And while he liked individual things in each of their styles, he says the concert format usually proved confining. “I felt like none of them transcended to what a movie really means on the big screen. So I decided to have the option in the editing room of all these forms.”
The editing work is where “Jails” -- a collage of 10 rappers, wannabe rappers, thuggish prison guards and troubled youngsters -- truly shines. In addition to filming three variations of the typical concert footage (in New York’s Washington Square Park, at a college performance space and in front of a prison audience), Hoch and codirector Mark Benjamin staged each monologue in a real-life setting. No attempt is made to stay consistent within each scenario; the action careens from the park to the jail to the simulation and back. “This was really complicated,” Hoch says. “The whole film was shot in two weeks, and it was edited in eight months.” Hoch even called in a few favors in Cuba, where he has done some cultural liaison work, and filmed a sequence in Old Havana.
Because of this peripatetic shooting style, the music became essential to tie the whole piece together. “One thing that stands out so much -- and I hope it’s not in a bad way -- is the incredibly deft editing. If it didn’t have the right music to solidify this seamlessness, we were fucked.” Luckily, Hoch got Mixmaster Mike, best known as the Beastie Boys’ main DJ, to contribute a score. (Disclosure: The advance tape I saw of “Jails” had not yet added Mixmaster Mike’s score. He’s a great musician, though, and I plan to see it again just for his music.)
Hoch clearly wrestles with the idea of caving in to the Hollywood machine. The only Hoch-specific “Jails” monologue is devoted to an aborted “Seinfeld” guest appearance in which he was asked to play a pandering Hispanic stereotype, and he still has unpleasant memories about virtually disappearing from the final cut of Terence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line.” (“I had four major fuckin’ scenes, man, and they’re gone.”) Similarly, the “Jails” executive producers -- Michael Skolnik and William O’Neill -- ended up taking the unusual step of reacquiring the film back from original distributors Stratosphere. “If you talk to most filmmakers, rarely will you hear nice things about distribution companies,” Hoch says of the move. “Corporate decisionmaking has nothing to do with art, and unfortunately, one of those is dependent on the other. ... Ultimately, I went to these two hip-hop kids who are about 10 years younger than me. Skolnik, 22, approached Hoch after seeing him perform at UCLA, where the budding producer was an undergraduate. He was 22 at the time, but he still raised the money and got “Jails” on its feet. “These kids are my audience,” Hoch says, “and they made it happen faster than any studio could.”
Like every other actor, Hoch is currently trying to cram some film work in before the expected strike. When we spoke, he had just arrived in Morocco to appear with Ewan McGregor and Tom Sizemore in “Black Hawk Down,” Ridley Scott’s depiction of the 1993 U.S. military debacle in Somalia. Hoch plays one of the 18 American soldiers who died. He’s also writing a new play — this one for other actors — and plans to have a guiding role in this summer’s Hip-Hop Theater Festival in New York. Individual pieces from the festival may also tour to other large U.S. cities after New York.
It’s hard to judge how well “Jails” will work without seeing (and especially hearing) the completed version. But the raw material is fantastic, and Hoch approaches the monologues as a true actor. With the exception of two disabled characters and the Cuban kid, he doesn’t do much in the way of broad accents or costume changes; the differences from character to character are a lot subtler and more truthful. He speaks to younger audiences in a way that no mainstream performer does today, with the possible exception of Sarah Jones.
Eric Bogosian appears to be Hoch’s biggest theatrical influence. The stage show of Jails was directed by Bogosian’s wife and frequent collaborator, Jo Bonney, and one character — a semi-reformed musician telling kids not to take the drugs that he so loves — is awfully close to a character in the similarly titled Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll.. But the piece totally works on its own terms. Hoch is angry without losing his compassion and funny without losing his narrative thread. This may earn him the large-scale audience he’s deserved for some time now.
I’ve been following “O,” the high school retelling of “Othello,” virtually since I started writing this column. Being delayed so many times is usually a terrible sign, but this is a sensitive case. The film’s violent ending would be troublesome in nearly any climate, but it screened for executives — and was understandably postponed — back in June 1999, about a month after the Columbine shootings. Life has continued to overshadow art: The continuing rash of school shootings, combined with a series of political confrontations over violent movies aimed at teens, has made “O” an extremely delicate sell. It had been slated to open in 10 cities on April 27, but that will almost certainly be pushed back yet again. Mekhi Phifer and Julia Stiles star as the Othello and Desdemona equivalents, with Josh Hartnett filling the Iago role.
Cutting-Room Floor: “Wit” debuts March 24 on HBO. In addition to headliners Emma Thompson and Mike Nichols, the theater names involved include Eileen Atkins, Audra McDonald and Harold Pinter (in a cameo as the dad who teaches our protagonist “soporific”). Advance word from the film festivals has been respectful if not effusive. ... Judging from the posturing on both sides, it’s looking more and more likely that the Writers Guild of America will strike on May 2. The actors’ contract isn’t up until June 30. ... I mentioned a biopic of playwright Miguel Pinero (Short Eyes) back in July 1999. After more than a year of delays, the movie finally filmed in New York and Puerto Rico late last year and is currently in postproduction. The cast includes “Law & Order” star Benjamin Bratt in the lead role, along with Mandy Patinkin and Rita Moreno; John Leguizamo was originally to star but is executive producing instead. No word yet on a distributor or release date. ... Speaking of biopics, Julie Taymor’s Frida Kahlo bio should begin filming next month. Salma Hayek will be supported by quite a roster: Antonio Banderas, Ashley Judd, Edward Norton, Oscar nominee Geoffrey Rush, Roger Rees and Alfred Molina. ... Alan Cumming could conceivably have three films out at once — if “Company Man” sticks around until the April 11 opening of “Josie and the Pussycats.” In the meanwhile, he logs yet another villain role in “Spy Kids,” which opens May 30. Opening that same day is the John le Carre spy drama “Tailor of Panama,” which also features a Harold Pinter cameo.
My Favorite Thought: Philip wasn’t the only person to make this suggestion for the PBS “Stage on Screen” series, but he had the most comprehensive list, so:
“In response to your question of what we would like to see PBS pull from the archives, I would like to suggest an entire month dedicated to Stephen Sondheim. He has been so generous in allowing his work to be recorded for PBS and home video. I would love to see rebroadcasts of the Broadway versions of Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods and Passion. And throw in the version of A Little Night Music with Regina Resnik and D.A. Pennebaker’s wonderful documentary on the recording of the cast album of Company.”
Your Thoughts: Who’s excited about Hoch’s latest? Which solo artist (or solo piece, if you want to get specific) would lend itself to a great film? Should it be straightforward or reconceptualized? And what are your thoughts on the “O” delay?
Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theater critic for Back Stage.