Behind the New York Sound of Netflix's 'The Forty-Year-Old Version'

In The Forty-Year-Old Version, first-time filmmaker Radha Blank (who also wrote and stars in the movie) plays a fictionalized version of herself. It’s a celebration of New York City’s diverse communities and cultures, as well as a satire of “the theater world, middle age, New York, the racial and gendered expectations of commercial art,” as K. Austin Collins detailed in his review of the beautiful black-and-white film.

In a new featurette video, Blank shares more of her inspirations, plus candid conversations with contributing musicians — Khrysis, Mickey Factz, Babs Bunny, Courtney Bryan, Styles P — and insights from her music supervisor Guy Routte, producer Lena Waithe, and others involved so that she can explain the connection between hip-hop and jazz that inspired the cathartic project.

“When I’m writing, I’ve very influenced by rhythm,” Blank says, attributing it to growing up in “certain parts” of New York City, such as Brownsville. “A lot of times it was about black life trying to find balance between moments of joy and moments of despair. I lived in a lot of poor communities that were very rich in life and rich in culture.… When it comes to music and telling a story, I just want to do stuff that is honest.”

The Forty-Year-Old Version won the directing prize at its world premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, and Blank — who most recently wrote episodes of Empire and the Netflix series She’s Gotta Have It  — plays an underdog in the film, a fictionalized version of a woman who is no longer the “young” star who people are eager to shower attention upon. The fictionalized Radha is on a journey to rediscover herself through hip-hop music and jazz — and the musical expressions ultimately become a mirror in which she can finally see herself. Blank collaborated with Guy Routte, whom she asked to be her music supervisor on the project, to help construct a diverse New York City soundscape.

“I wanted the sound to sound authentically ‘Brooklyn’, ” she explains in this video interview. “As if the person was producing for Sean Price, then [Guy] got Khrysis, who produced for Sean Price.

The video also includes revealing moments with Khrysis — who shows how he found a loop to sample and created a beat — and MC Mickey Factz and Brooklyn Babs (a.k.a. Babs Bunny), who breaks down the amazing rap battle moment and how “Queen of the Ring” figures into the narrative. “Women in battle rap are very personal,” Babs explains. “They will spit very personal; they go for the jugular — they trying to kill you.”

The movie includes plenty of Nineties hip-hop hit songs — “Electric Relaxation” by A Tribe Called Quest and “Wrath of My Madness” by Queen Latifah — as well as digging deep into classics that younger generations may not recognize, such as Quincy Jones’ 1969 “Love and Peace” or “Above the Cross / My Divine” by Melodic Art-Tet.

“That final scene when I’m coming to my mom’s apartment kind of confronting my past … that’s my father’s music playing,“ Blank explains. “Through the presence of music in this film, I get to honor my dad, who has played with everyone from Sun Ra to Walter Davis Jr.; he’s on that A Patch of Blue soundtrack. So, I’m hoping that the film is an homage to him and keeps his legacy alive as a jazz musician.”

Blank reinforces her intention that her first feature is meant as a sort of “love letter” to the city and confesses she’s been pleased with how many people have responded. “New Yorkers say it’s authentic as fuck. Black people say it’s black as fuck,” she says. “The other thing people say is that it mirrors their life and experience. I’m really proud of that; I’m really proud that we created something that people can see themselves in.”

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