SLAMDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2023 REVIEW! Just like Time magazine’s famous two-word review for Spinal Tap’s album Shark Sandwich, life serves musician L’Orange a s**t sandwich in Zach Kashkett’s rocking hip-hop doc The Mad Writer. I was going to describe it as “excellent,” but I wanna see if “rocking hip-hop doc” will piss off L’Orange even more than he is already.
L’Orange, the stage moniker for Austin Hart, lets you know right from the get-go how much he hates being in this documentary. He would never subject himself to being the subject of a film, but Kashkett has been a friend since childhood. This means L’Orange feels like he can be frank, which he certainly is. He talks openly about how agonizing the whole project is, but part of that is that consciousness for him seems unbearable.
L’Orange rose up out of Nashville with hip-hop beats that sample jazz artists. He provides music for Adult Swim, who distributed his latest album. But as Hart has suffered from depression since elementary school, his triumphs keep him busy but not happy. Then one night at a show, blood starts gushing out of his ear. It turns out there is a growth inside it that’s destroying his hearing. This will require many operations, which help make up the layers of the triple-decker s**t sandwich L’Orange gets to eat onscreen for you lucky people.
If cynicism could be compressed into a diamond, it would glitter as The Mad Writer does. L’Orange’s instant contrariness makes the sympathy Kashkett develops for him all the more impressive. I went into this film vaguely recognizing the subject’s name from record store browsing but nothing else. My first impression of his sarcasm was wanting to see someone smack him upside his head on his hurt ear like It’s a Wonderful Life. L’Orange’s snide demeanor would turtle-snap anyone in the sack. However, it becomes apparent once he starts talking that his snarkiness is the waste product of an unfiltered honesty about the gloom he lives in. This isn’t an act; this guy is down in the dumps and his stairway out is music.
“ It is a musician’s worst nightmare to have your hearing threatened.”
The irony is that his chronic depression probably kept him from snapping during his ear catastrophe. It is a musician’s worst nightmare to have your hearing threatened. However, if L’Orange had been spurting happiness when the ear blew, he would have plummeted so far down emotionally that he would have shattered. Instead, as he was already at a low, he just blended it into his daily diet of misery which sustains him.
L’Orange’s longtime depression also gives him some brilliant insights, including why balloon animals are cruel to children. After he drops that f****d-up gem Kashkett comments offscreen on how happy he is with how the documentary is going. L’Orange snarks back that the filmmaker can change anything he says in the editing bay. The Mad Writer is stuffed with this kind of meta self-reflexivity, with the subject and director interacting and commenting on the film’s progress. It increases the aura of honesty around everything and keeps things from ever getting full of s**t.
This isn’t so much a music documentary marketing an artist as it is a film study of the more complicated emotional states that exist with a musician. Seeing grumpy puss L’Orange melt whenever he is around his girlfriend, singer/songwriter Leah Lawson is a blast. Her acceptance and understanding of who he is seems to be the one raft of light in his sea of darkness. It reminds me how awful I felt all the time before I met my wife in Austin 27 years ago.
By the time the movie ends, the audience kind of gets L’Orange too. Kashkett’s editing is clever and fully draws the viewer into a rapid flow throughout the running time. He definitely manages to take the traditional music documentary format in a direction we haven’t seen often. The Mad Writer will steel toe you in the heartstrings. It is the Brian’s Song of hip hop. I bet that last part will really piss L’Orange off.
The Mad Writer screened at the 2023 Slamdance Film Festival.