The music video director steps into the battle zone with the fast, furious 'Bodied'

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Joseph Kahn fought to get "Bodied" made, and he fought to get "Bodied" released. 

He's used to fighting.

"I'm an Asian dude that got dropped into Texas in the 1980s," Kahn says. "I don't know any other perspective than to fight my way through society." 

The transition from fighting to battling was natural. "Bodied," the director's incendiary film that takes place in the world of battle rap, opens in theaters Friday, ahead of a YouTube Red release later this month. 

"Bodied" carries not only the endorsement of Eminem, but a producer credit from Mr. "8 Mile" himself. Kahn and Eminem have worked together on several music videos, including "Without Me" (which earned Kahn a Grammy and an MTV Video Music Award for Video of the Year) and "Love the Way You Lie," but he didn't want to go to Em too early in the process while making "Bodied."

"I always had it in the back of my mind that he was going to come on board at some point," says Kahn, on the phone this week from New York. "But you don't want to go to Em and ask for money or an endorsement on something on big as battle rap, because everybody asks him for things. So I made the movie, showed it to him, and he loved it. Then he decided to come on board, and he helped us put the deal together."

While it unfolds in the world of rap battles, "Bodied" is largely about language and the policing of language, and who gets to say what words within the confines of today's "woke" culture. It hits on many button-pushing issues, and Kahn says without a name like Eminem's attached, the film would have never found distribution.

"He protected us," he says. 

Kahn, who made his name directing hundreds of music videos for everyone from Christina Aguilera to Rob Zombie, self-financed "Bodied," putting up several million of his own dollars to get it made. It's not his preference to work that way, he says, but doing so gives him total creative freedom. "And I need total control," he says. 

Kahn's first feature was 2004's "Torque," an ultra-stylish racing movie that's like "Fast and Furious" on motorcycles. It's also the last movie he made for a studio.

Working outside of the studio system, he returned to feature films with 2011's dark comedy "Detention," which he paid for out of his own pocket. He then made waves with "Power/Rangers," a 2015 short that presented an adult version of the popular children's franchise and was released for free on the internet. 

Following "Power/Rangers" — which racked up 20 million views before it was pulled due to legal reasons (Kahn made the film without any license or rights to the characters) — Kahn says he received calls from every studio in Hollywood. But nothing he was offered excited him.

The battle rap world did excite him, however. He had wanted to do a battle rap movie dating back to 2000 when he first worked with Eminem, "but then he made '8 Mile' and I figured, 'I'm screwed,' " Kahn says. 

Then he met with writer Alex Larsen, who was reared in the battle rap world, and the two of them concocted "Bodied" over the course of several months, entirely over Skype. The film stars Calum Worthy (the Disney Channel's "Austin & Ally") as a grad student who takes up battle rap as the subject of his senior thesis and winds up immersed in the world of underground battling. 

Kahn and Larsen began working on the film in 2015, and it premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the fest's People's Choice Award under the Midnight Madness banner. It continued to play well on the festival circuit but didn't find distribution for months, until indie house Neon picked it up. 

The lengthy process was “brutal,” says Kahn, 46. But in a twist of fate, what Kahn calls the “offense culture” the film criticizes -- the touchiness of these overly PC times -- has only increased in the intervening years. And the themes in “Bodied” are just as sharp today as when Kahn and Larsen cooked it up.  

"We were being predictive of offense and language culture intensifying over the years," says Kahn, who was born in South Korea and moved with his family to Houston when he was a child. "It was clear where all this echo-chambering of society was heading. It's not going to get any better. What am I racing against, that idea that race relations will get solved in three years? No way! It was a safe bet it would still be around in a few years, and quite frankly intensify." 

Kahn says "Bodied" is, in a sense, a musical with no actual music. His dream, however, is to do a full-blown musical.

"I feel like I'm weaponized to do a musical," Kahn says. "If I choose to accept any musical, I could knock it out of the park. I just feel that confident about my abilities to tell stories with music and visuals." 

Given his penchant for fighting, doubt him at your own risk. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'Bodied'

Rated R for strong language and sexual content throughout, some drug use and brief nudity

Running time: 121 minutes

Opens Friday 

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