Under the Influence: Michael M. Bilandic on Hellaware and “Yung Lean – 5th Element”

A new series on MovieMaker.com, Under the Influence charts the often-mysterious ways that art begets art, calling upon moviemakers to write about one creative work that informed and inspired their own. In this edition, director Michael M. Bilandic talks about the Swedish “sad rap” viral video that spurred on Hellaware, his clever satire about New York art world denizens celebrating (and exploiting) a horrorcore rap group called the Young Torture Killaz.

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The synopsis of this YouTube video says simply, and cryptically, “2004 SADBOYS/EMOTIONALBOYS/GATORADEBOYZ SNORTIN COCAINE IN THE JUNGLE.” And with that we see a 16-year-old Swedish kid, Yung Lean, in a bucket hat chilling at a picnic table, looking at his retro digital watch. Dramatic clips from Luc Besson’s 1997 sci-fi cult classic, The Fifth Element, are superimposed over him: Bruce Willis embraces Milla Jovovich while Lean adjusts his ’90 shades. In a thick accent he mumbles about being in the club and seeing five elements (whatever that means), and drops free associative verses like “teleport to a new timezone with an escort smoking Newports, Yung Lean a.k.a. Neil Young, come in the club and I look like Obi-Wan.”

Just like that, without a record label or promotional machine behind him, a new iconic rap weirdo was born. Walking around, usually with a gallon jug or tall boy of Arizona Iced Tea, he stepped up right into the center of highbrow fashion and culture, pioneering a new genre of “sad” rap. His crew, the #SadBoys a.k.a #EmotionalBoys a.k.a. #ArizonaIcedOutBoys, brought a new form of self-aware faux-depression and late-’90s/early-2000s nostalgia to the mix. Soon trendy high fashion sites like VFILES were pushing his t-shirts for $75 a pop and selling out instantly. Limited-edition cassette tapes and bucket hats followed. When he made his New York debut, he received a hero’s welcome.

Hellaware1

Keith Poulson, Sophia Takal, and Duane C. Wallace play members of the New York art scene in Hellaware

This race to find the weirdest, most obscure, regional, oddball entertainment (preferably of the rap variety) by thirsty urban tastemakers is the essence of Hellaware. The Pokemon credo of “Gotta catch ’em all” seems fitting: the drive to find the most exotic, unknown, #rare specimens from the deepest corners of the Internet. It’s no coincidence that Lean’s videos are filled with images of, and references to, Pikachu. For a generation raised on collecting cards, there’s no reason “collecting” rap music or artists would be any different.

In my film, the protagonist, Nate, thinks he’s stumbled on a major, first-edition, Charizard-level find with the Young Torture Killaz, a rap group from rural Delaware with only one song (“I’ll Cut Yo Dick Off”). He desperately tries to rope them in and find a way to use them to his advantage – to put them in his Pokeball of sorts. However, like Ash, he soon realizes that becoming a “master” is easier said than done.

At the end of the “5th Element” video, the song slows down and the visuals fragment into a drugged-out kaleidoscope effect. In Hellaware we employ the same technique when Nate finally drinks lean with the rappers in their basement. He hears a slower, “screwed and chopped” version of “I’ll Cut Yo Dick Off.” Everything blends into a collage of random images and washed out sounds, much like the indiscriminate, blurred, outre Wild West ether called YouTube that spawned both Yung Lean and the Young Torture Killaz. And where you can now rent Hellaware, too. MM

Hellaware opens in theaters and on VOD Friday, September 26, 2014, courtesy of Factory 25.

Hellaware Poster

Check out previous installments of Under the Influence here.

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