Sorry to Bother You succeeds where other movies directed by musicians fail epically

Jermaine Fowler, Steven Yeun and Lakeith Stanfield in Sorry To Bother You

The road between being a recording artist and being a director is paved with uncertain intentions and wild self-indulgence. In the past, many top musicians have been handed an opportunity to direct, and most have taken that opportunity to create an extension of their music work. (There aren’t too many recording artists who would jump at the chance to director another installment in the Twilight franchise, let’s say.)

The results are generally terrible, from the rambling messes penned by Bob Dylan or Neil Young to the glorified album promo that 50 Cent directed in 2009. Many of them are also somehow overly ambitious and thoroughly lazy, as if most of the ideas were abandoned at some point in the process when it was discovered how much actual work would be needed to bring them to term. These films are often incoherent but rarely feel like a compromise — they tend to be a pretty pure expression of something that the filmmaker lacks the means to say.

Almost none of those qualifiers apply to Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You. For one, the Coup frontman has said in interviews that film was his first goal — he only quit film school when he got a record deal in the early ’90s. Secondly, it’s a fully formed narrative in which (crucially) Riley himself does not appear, which does a lot to deflect the self-indulgent nature of this type of project. What Sorry to Bother You does have, however, is a streak of first-feature ambition and a total lack of compromise, resulting in a frequently brilliant, sometimes clumsy social satire that’s very much in the image of its creator.

Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) lives in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage in Oakland, barely eking out a living alongside his performance-artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson). Months behind on rent, Cassius takes a job at a telemarketing company. The job proves to be difficult for Cash until an old-timer (Danny Glover) gives him the only necessary trick of the trade: using your “white voice” to charm customers. Tapping into his inner white man (voiced by David Cross), Cash becomes a superstar at work, rising through the ranks as his friends and coworkers (Jermaine Fowler and Steven Yeun) attempt to organize a union. Cash’s ascent brings him all the way up to Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), the all-powerful CEO of a company that essentially (but, they point out, completely willingly) enslaves workers in Amazon-like work/live camps.

Though not all viewers will be familiar with Riley’s work in the musical sphere, the film is very much in that image: a mixing of highbrow and lowbrow cultures that offers both a remarkably thorough exploration of unionizing but also several elaborate comic setpieces. Riley pulls out all the stops as a director, packing the frame with information (including several bits of slapstick that happen in the background, out of focus) and crafting complex visual gags in a way that’s rarely seen these days. It’s not always elegant — there are some techniques, like slow-motion, that seem employed just for the hell of it — but it bears the mark of a truly confident first feature.

Like a lot of first features, however, Sorry to Bother You is probably a tad too ambitious for its own good. Riley is weaving together so many of his personal concerns and passions that it’s a wonder the thing even hangs together as well as it does, but it’s undeniably a lot of stuff for a single movie. Riley takes on race, class, poverty, unionizing, capitalism, performance art, the decrepitude of his native Oakland, technology, social media, Amazon and about 30 other topics in the space of one film. In that sense, it feels a lot like satire from a bygone era — not necessarily in its visual or tonal cues but really more in its freewheeling and often messy approach to the material. There seems to be an attempt to make Sorry to Bother You THE all-encompassing takedown of our times, which is exactly the kind of deliriously ambitious plan that results in masterpieces and boondoggles in equal measure. Not all of it lands, and some elements land with a resounding thud (it can get extremely obvious, starting with the fact that the main character is literally called Cash Is Green) but that thud always sounds like Boots Riley. It’s difficult to discuss the movie without getting into some dicey spoiler territory, but suffice to say that it goes places you could not possibly have imagined.

It’s also worth noting that a lot of the film is driven by the peculiar rhythms of its lead. Stanfield has proven to be one of the best young actors working today — the kind of actor who never actually seems to be acting — and the film adapts surprisingly well to his very singular and unusual pace. It’s no great revelation to say that casting ultimately makes or breaks a film, but it seems particularly true here, as the kind of hazy charm that Stanfield has brought to other projects defines Sorry to Bother You’s similarly hazy drive.

In a lot of ways, Sorry to Bother You isn’t really that different from significantly worse movies made by power-mad musicians. It’s uncompromising and visionary and also more than a little bit full of itself, but the major difference is that Riley has a truly cinematic eye and a defined voice that will hopefully resonate again in the future — that is, if he hasn’t already said everything he has to say. But I highly doubt it. ■

Sorry to Bother You opens in theatres on Friday, July 13. Watch the trailer here:

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