VANITY FAIR: Joseph Kahn's Very Pop Art

VANITY FAIR:  Joseph Kahn's Very Pop Art

Photo Illustration by Jordan Amchin. By Santiago Felipe/Getty Images (Kahn)

The prolific music-video director discusses his career, his new feature film, Bodied, and what he’d like to tell his 2002 self.

By Simon Abrams
November 2, 2018

In 2004, Joseph Kahn made his first feature: Torque, a tongue-in-cheek riff on the Fast and the Furious series. By this time, Kahn had already directed almost 100 music videos for artists including Willie Nelson, Aaliyah, Britney Spears, DMX, and Eminem. Feature-filmmaking was always the dream, but Torque turned out to be something of a nightmare: he received newly re-written script pages by fax almost every morning.

But Kahn also blamed himself for thinking he was above the material he had been given to work with. “The studio wanted a serious movie, and I wanted a comedy,” he said in an interview this week. “But the studio was right, because the audience wanted a serious movie, too! That’s why so few people showed up. My take for that film wasn’t quite right. Who wants to watch a funny bike movie starring Ice Cube that’s also inspired by [the trippy 1988 Japanese animation classic] Akira and other anime?”

I raised my hand, but Kahn didn’t miss a beat: “You and me, and that’s it! So the studio’s instincts were correct. Torque was just a bad match of material and director.” The numbers bear that out: the film grossed just $21 million across the nation, a little more than half its $40 million budget.

Kahn went on to direct two more feature films: Detention, a 2011 sci-fi, horror, teen-comedy hybrid; and Bodied, a proudly un-P.C. battle-rap drama that releases wide on Friday. Bodied follows Adam (Calum Worthy), an insensitive grad student who simultaneously gains artistic freedom and loses personal relationships as he becomes a successful battle rapper. It’s a movie Kahn couldn’t have made the way he wanted if he hadn’t produced it with his own money—a striking financial risk, since Kahn previously invested about $4.5 million of his own funds into the production of Detention, and ended up losing $3 million of it.

But Detention’s losses also taught Kahn a painful but necessary lesson: if you want to fully realize your vision, then you have to pay for creative freedom. Kahn estimated that he successfully realizes about 70 to 80 percent of his own ideas when he makes music videos; he’s fine, he said, with record-label executives controlling the remaining 20 to 30 percent. But “the only way to do a 100 percent video is through [feature]-filmmaking,” he said. “And the only way I can do that—until I find a producer who thinks exactly like me—is by spending my own money.”

Kahn started directing music videos out of necessity, after dropping out of New York University’s undergraduate film program in the early 90s. A year and a half of studies had incurred a $30,000 student-loans bill—and unlike some of his classmates, he never dismissed commercials and music videos as lesser forms of filmmaking: “I was in love with Madonna videos, and would get in debates with film students who’d argue, ‘The things you’re doing for three or four minutes . . . that’s not a film!’ At a certain point, I knew that for me to take the journey that I wanted, I needed to leave [college].”

Kahn’s post-college rise to prominence was fast, but not immediate. After borrowing his single, working-class mother’s credit card to buy about $2,000 worth of film equipment, he went home to Houston, Texas. Clips for indie-rock bands like Pain Teens and the Rake’s Progress (“the videos were terrible!”) led to videos for Houston-based gangsta-rap label Rap-a-Lot, which in turn led to gigs for Def Jam in Los Angeles.

By 1996, Kahn was collaborating with artists like Aaliyah and New Edition; in just a few years, his average production budget had climbed from $10,000 to $1 million. The key to his success is a knack for visual translation: “Somebody might traditionally translate Beowulf, but I’m putting Beowulf in shiny armor (or rap shoes), and telling his story from my point of view,” he said.

Take, for example, Kahn’s 2000 music video for Sisqó’s pop-R&B earworm “Thong Song.” It’s effective primarily because Kahn didn’t imagine that he was smarter than the song or its target audience. The final cut has fast cars, slow-motion volleyball, and a lot of bare flesh. There’s room for wit there, too, as in the playful scene where Sisqó’s all-male posse imitate cheerleaders, raising the artist to form a four-man pyramid. Seconds later, Sisqó launches into the sky, and lazily soars over his adoring (and predominantly female) fans’ heads while they raise the roof.

“I’m always reaching out to my artists’ core demographics, because that’s part of the job,” Kahn said. “But I always try to do things that subvert or raise viewers’ expectations. I never make a music video thinking I’m just making a thong video, or just making a love video. I always try to make sure there’s something in the video that personally interests me as a human being [and] that hopefully other people can also find interesting. Otherwise I’ve just made a boring video.”

Bodied, too, feels like classic Kahn: crowd-pleasing and idiosyncratic, all at the same time. Protagonist Adam constantly oversteps boundaries by using racist stereotypes to eviscerate his fellow rappers, in matches choreographed with dynamic camerawork and gorgeous lighting cues. The director captures the energy, the rhythmic flow, and the infectious humor of Adam’s improvised poems. But Kahn—who co-wrote Bodied with Canadian battle rapper Alex Larsen—also doesn’t let Adam off the hook for his behavior. Supporting characters, like Adam’s encouraging mentor, Behn Grymm (Jackie Long), and stuck-up girlfriend, Maya (Rory Uphold), both remind Adam that while he may be a good battle rapper, he’s also a lousy human being.

Experience has taught Kahn how to deliver a personal work of art that also doesn’t condescend to viewers or their taste—and how to keep his sensibilities in check if the material demands that, as he wishes he had on Torque. He got another lesson in tamping down his more self-indulgent impulses in the early aughts, when he came very close to making a lighthearted sequel to the grim 1994 comic-book film The Crow—one that would pit rappers DMX and Eminem against each other.

“It was too conceptual, and would have been really terrible,” Kahn laughed. “At that point, I was really into Andy Warhol. I was thinking, ‘Oh, there’s a lot that’s similar to what he and I do. He deals with Pop art; I deal with Pop art. He takes the monotony of household objects, like Campbell’s soup cans, and tries to make them interesting by repeating them. Well, I take the monotony of pop stars and try to subvert them,’ you know? I was fully into myself and horrible. If I could take a time-travel machine back to 2002, I would beat that guy up.”

Kahn hopes that Bodied will also find its audience. So far, the signs are positive: the drama has already won audience awards at film festivals like Toronto and Fantastic Fest. But he’s also proud of the film for what it is—and knows that financial returns can’t comprehensively measure its success.

“There are guys out there that take $3 million, and they put it in some stock like Enron, and they lose their money the next day with nothing to show for it. I Enron’d myself [when I made Detention], but now I have this awesome movie that people enjoy—and that I enjoy,” he said. “Did I waste $3 million? My accountant would say yes. But my soul says no.”