“Anybody that’s different, we’re ready to be prejudiced against them” – Jonathan Balazs’ documentary Mars Project

[Image Source: marsprojectmovie.blogspot.ca]

[Image Source: Mars Project]

One of the things I love most about social media is that, if you allow yourself, you can expand your horizons beyond the provincial – those traditional boundaries of geography, life experience, education, family – to defy and redefine the term “friend.” This is a revolution in the making, and none of us can really see the forest for the trees at this point as to how differently our communities, virtual or otherwise, ultimately will look in the future.

That being said, I was honored when Canadian filmmaker Jonathan Balazs reached out to me via Facebook as a follower of this blog to see if I would review his documentary Mars Project (click here for more info). I was thrilled that he wanted to share his work with me – evidence of the global footprint we all can create with just a few keystrokes.

(As an aside, this morning, I heard Sheryl Sandberg – COO of Facebook and author of Lean In speak at Detroit’s Adcraft Club breakfast. I appreciated her candor about the toxic effects of sexism, racism, ageism, and all the other nasty “-ism”s in society today. Interesting factoid: 63% of facebook’s 1.28 BILLION users return every day.)

Balazs’ documentary, a brisk 60 minutes, offers the haunting tale of a hip-hop artist Khari “Conspiracy” Stewart who may or may not be suffering from mental illness and how his frustrations with the health care system lead him to explore more spiritual/humanistic options to cure his “affliction”.

We learn Khari’s story in his own words through voice-over as well as through first person interviews with his twin brother Addi, who telegraphs a palpable mix of frustration, rivalry, annoyance, and love. We also hear from representatives of the mental health profession who express their frustration with their own colleagues’ tendency toward quick medicinal fixes and reductive categorization. One doctor observes, “Anybody that’s different, we’re ready to be prejudiced against them.”

Arguably the most interesting question the documentary grapples with is the “chicken or the egg” phenomenon of whether insanity breeds great art or the intensity of the artistic process prompts social maladjustment. Art as therapy?

The film pointedly critiques a society that often labels “mentally ill” those folks who view the world differently. In watching Addi and hearing him articulate his understandable frustrations with Khari, the viewer may intuit a rush to judgment that occurs out of annoyance and jealousy as much as it does concern for his brother’s well-being.

The filmmakers don’t offer us any easy answers to these questions, and, at times, I wondered if Khari had created this persona of a hip-hop artist plagued by demonic voices (that may or may not come from space!) as a quirky means of differentiating and marketing himself. Yet, as the film runs its course, illuminating the reality of Khari’s difference, it becomes apparent that his musical gifts come with a price.

Balazs uses a variety of techniques to illustrate Khari’s unique place in a world that rejects him. At one point. a radio interview is played wherein the DJs remark how Khari’s music is 10 years ahead of its time, while his own brother, a member of the crew, admits he can barely bring himself to listen to it.

The film is shot in a grainy hand-held fashion that suits the subject matter, with some interesting layered effects as footage is projected on brick walls and other stationary objects in and around Edmonton, the twins’ hometown.

I have had a tenuous relationship with hip hop in recent years, though I was a big fan in high school and college. Those artists who speak to me have always been a bit left of center, be it De La Soul or Black Sheep or Jungle Brothers or Digable Planets or even more mainstream folks like Kanye West and Erykah Badu.

I also find myself questioning the efficacy of modern approaches to mental health, which seem more about bringing everyone “in-line” to “normalcy” … when I’m not sure any of us really know what that is or what that looks like.

I’m not meaning to start a debate here about mental health doctrine or about the artistic merits of Kanye West, but I will concede that this documentary gave me a lot of food for thought … and makes me want to find some of Khari’s musical output. And, in this sense, Balazs did his job as a documentarian beautifully. Balazs is a filmmaking force to watch.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Ring a ding ding! A new Rat Pack’s in town: Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake at Detroit’s Ford Field

Look, ma! Their stage!
[Photo by Author]

Niece Gabby before the big show
[Photo by Author]

Have you ever seen a concert that’s just so good that there isn’t much to say about it?

Me neither. But I did last night.

Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z’s tour-de-force concert Legends of the Summer hit Detroit’s Ford Field last night with the gale force of a hurricane. It was a marvel. And it was so good…for once I’m at a loss for words. Or at least a loss for quips.

Timberlake with guitar…and a very large peace sign. [Photo by Author]

I’ve seen a lot of concerts this year, for some reason – P!nk, Suzanne Vega, Shania Twain, New Kids on the Block, 98 Degrees, BoyzIIMen – and I enjoyed them all thoroughly. They all pale in comparison to this show.

Why? For one, there were no flying motorcycles, no gymnastic feats, no flying saucers, no aerial acts, no trapeze artists, and no horses. (Well, I will say, I thought the two live horses at Shania’s show were pretty amazing and really sweet.) There was just music and the joy of performing… though admittedly the lacquered red rectangle of a set that turned into a million different light projections was a nifty technical addition.

The D brings folks together! Surprised to find a former co-worker seated nearby [Photo by Author]

Timberlake and Jay-Z shared the stage about 70% of the time, and, reminiscent of the Rat Pack vibe that Timberlake has been rather successfully co-opting for about a half dozen years, the two swells bounced off each other musically, complementing each other’s showmanship beautifully.

Neither performer missed a beat as they sailed through nearly 40 songs in about two and a half hours. The show is briskly paced and does not bore for one second.

Timberlake, who used to suffer a bit from the “hey look what I can do now” curse of too many child performers (and of a couple of show choir show-boaters I avoided during high school), has mellowed at the ripe old age of 32 (!). He moves effortlessly from piano to keyboard to vocal to dance with finesse and surety, his former overeagerness having transitioned beautifully to a playful confidence.

Tiger stage projection during Jay-Z performance
[Photo by Author]

And Jay-Z (who I think is about my age) was like the elder statesman – Martin or Sinatra to Timblerake’s Sammy? I don’t know his music as well as I do Timberlake’s and I’m not always nuts about hip hop (with the shining exception of my fascination with Kanye West) but Jay-Z made me a convert. He approached his rhymes like a jazz musician who isn’t afraid of melody. He swoops and glides and compels the audience to hang on to every word. Mesmerizing.

The show was a graduation present of sorts for our niece as she heads off to college, and I could tell that it was just the right send off. She was on cloud nine during the nearly hour-long departure from the stadium. For once, the exiting crowd was a fun extension of the evening as opposed to a burden as everyone seemed euphoric.

That big red stage…kinda looked like a Target store display [Photo by Author]

(One notable exception being the truly obnoxious inebriated Kardashian clones seated immediately behind us during the whole show. Note to future concert-goers: just because you have floor seats does not give you the right to keep pushing your chairs against the patrons in the next row. Thank goodness for the sweet folks in front of us, who, sensitive to our plight, moved their seats up to give us more room.)

Yup, kids, there’s a new Rat Pack in town and it’s led by Jay-Z and JT. They only have a few shows left this summer. Don’t miss ’em! (And lookee there…guess I did have something to say after all…and even a quip or two!)