Reviewed by Marc Glassman
Garry Beitel, director
Feature documentary starring: Josh “Socalled” Dolgin w/Katie Moore, David Krakauer, Irving Fields, Fred Wesley, Chilly Gonzalez
The National Film Board has an admirable reputation for working with Canadian artists, particularly from its home base in Montreal. Leonard Cohen, the McGarrigle Sisters, Irving Layton, Alanis Obomsawin and Ryan Larkin are just some of the lucky locals who have been taken up (and sometimes hired) by the NFB. You can add to that distinguished list the unique Josh Dolgin a.k.a. Socalled.
Garry Beitel’s new feature doc The Socalled Movie profiles this colourful young musician who looks like a mad scientist but may, in fact, be an alchemist. Josh Dolgin has transformed Klezmer, the ancient Yiddish folk music, into a mutable style, making it work effectively with funk, rap, hip-hop and electronic beats. It’s no surprise that Dolgin has side-careers as a musician and a cartoonist. Barriers don’t hold back this imaginative thinker and artist; he seems to mix and match genres at will.
Veteran documentarian Beitel, who taught Dolgin at McGill University, profiles his former student affectionately, as a figure who leads multiple lives. “Socalled,” Dolgin’s old DJ name, works well here: he’s a character, Beitel suggests, who can’t be placed into a container with a one-word description.
Instead, this film proposes an 18-part structure, in a conscious homage to the wonderful Goldberg variations inspired 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould. In separate sections, Beitel shows Dolgin collaborating with the great klezmer clarinet player David Krakauer, the ancient lounge singer-songwriter Irving Fields, the James Brown funkster and trombone player Fred Wesley and the lovely Montreal singer Katie Moore. “Socalled” is seen in non-musical contexts, practicing his sleight-of-hand, drawing cartoons and producing Porn Pop, a music & film event based on the homoerotic Seventies flicks by director Toby Ross.
In an extended sequence, Beitel covers a Klez-trip organized by Dolgin’s parents up the Dnieper River in the Ukraine. Music abounds on the ship but there are painful and poignant moments when the guests and musicians go on shore and visit Holocaust sites. Beitel contrasts those scenes with extended fantasy sequences directed by Dolgin featuring Fred Wesley and other friends doing bizarre dream-like things.
Hardly a household name, Josh Dolgin has nevertheless played Harlem’s iconic and very funky Apollo Theatre, Paris’ famous Olympia and many festivals around the world, including Ashekenaz (at Harbourfront) in Toronto. You Are Never Alone, his music video has had millions (yes, millions!) of hits on YouTube. Such is the nature of being a celebrity in contemporary times.
Will The Socalled Movie make Dolgin a pop star? Of course not—but it won’t hurt. Is it a great doc? Well, it’s always hard for a filmmaker to make something wonderful when the subject is a friend. That, of course, was Beitel’s dilemma and it’s fair to say that he didn’t totally deal with the “hagiographic” issue. Was the film structured properly? I don’t think so: Dolgin isn’t an artist whose life is divided. His life seems much more free flowing than oddly structured.
The Socalled Movie catches an artist in transition. It’s not perfect—what is?—but the film and the character take you on an enjoyable ride. I urge people to see the film either in theatres now or on DVD (or on the NFB’s great website) in the months to come.