by Mateusz Zatonski
On its opening weekend, Jesteś Bogiem (You are God) attracted over 370 000 Poles to their local cinemas. For a nation notoriously unenthusiastic about spending an evening with film and popcorn (unless the film is streamed for free online and the popcorn is accompanied by a can of beer, preferably consumed on the sofa), this is a truly stellar result – in fact, the third best movie opening weekend in Poland in the last two decades. Even more surprisingly, the movie that attracted the Poles to the silver screens is a biopic of the icon of a music genre that is also far past its prime on the Polish market – the psychedelic rapper Piotr ‘Magik’ Łuszcz.
The late 1990s brought a revolution to the Polish music scene. Psychedelic rap, almost overnight, stormed the charts that for the first decade after the fall of the Soviet Union were dominated by American hits and the homegrown ‘disco-polo’ genre (expect more on this peculiar brand of pop soon from CtB). Two groups in particular became household names, known even to those who had no interest in rap music or broader hip-hop culture – Kaliber 44 and Paktofonika. What both had in common was the association with the charismatic Magik. They dominated the Polish rap scene until the rapper’s suicide on 26 December 2000, when the young artist fell to his death from the window of his ninth-floor flat in a Katowice council estate.
Previously fed almost solely with the likes of Kelly Family and Celine Dion, the average Pole from one day to the next became exposed on the radio and the proliferating music channels to Magik’s vulgar lyrics. The uncompromising artist candidly expressed the internal confusion experienced by the first generation of young adults to have grown up in a non-Communist Poland. Along with American ideals of political and economic freedom, Poland inherited rampant consumptionism, poverty affecting the less entrepreneurial sections of society, and problems of privatization of state enterprise that particularly affected industrial Upper Silesia, the region where Magik grew up.
Magik wrote songs about bad drug trips, fears of HIV examinations, and the psychological problems faced by a generation which had nowhere to look for a blueprint for how to lead their lives in the new social reality. The dilemmas of teenagers from crime-ridden Polish council blocks proved rather different from those of their Western peers from Westlife that dominated the radiowaves. The adolescents of the immediate post-Communist era might have been taciturn in front of their parents, but they sought a voice, and they found it in Magik.
Jesteś Bogiem is an impressive attempt at capturing the spirit of the time in which Magik lived and recorded. New, young faces were selected for the main roles, a choice rarely made in Polish film-making, dominated by a handful of big names dominating both cinema and TV productions. The performances of the actors are flawless, and even Magik’s old friends noted that the young actor Marcin Kowalczyk managed to capture the rappers idiosyncracies and characteristic gestures perfectly. The actors were also praised for delivering the rap lines themselves. The director, Leszek Dawid, has been criticised for fiddling with with chronology and altering some of the facts to simplify the movie script. Magik’s 4-year long involvement with his first group, Kaliber 44, is glossed over and the focus is on the last two years of his life and the funding of Paktofonika. The working class backgrounds of the protagonists are perhaps slightly exaggerated, as are their financial difficulties (by the end of the 1990s they were all well-established and sought after musicians, while the movie shows them as very much underground figures struggling to get their work out to the world).
The success of Jesteś Bogiem may suggest that Polish audiences have matured enough to allow Polish cinema to move beyond the ubiquitous romantic comedies and historical dramas, and the hackneyed adaptations of literary classics. They demand movies which will resonate with the experiences of their youth, and as time passes this no longer means the repeated servings of Nazi atrocities or Communist tyranny, but stories set during the painful economic transition after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. Having said that, the next anticipated Polish film will again be a biopic of a big historical character – the legendary Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa – directed by the Oscar winner Andrzej Wajda.