It began with gospel and blues, sprawling from its roots in the Great Migration and fostering a new generation of storytellers and devotees. From that came Windy City jazz, nourished by the bustling crowds and intimate dives of Rush Street between the 50s and 70s. Then, mostly queer and Black clubs near the West Loop melded disco with R&B and electronic four-on-the-floor beats to forge Chicago house, and by the 90s, the city had become an often overlooked epicenter of hip-hop.
Remsy Atassi, director and cofounder of production company Emulsion Lab, pays homage to the city and its rich musical tapestry with his first feature-length romantic drama Bad Animal. The partially crowdfunded film features original music from scene staples such as The Palmer Squares, Pixel Grip, Chris Crack, Malci, and more.
Cofounded in 2017 by Atassi and cinematographer Sean Robert Kelly, Emulsion Lab started as an online platform dedicated to supporting local Chicago music artists. Through blog posts, photo essays, and music videos produced on shoestring budgets, Emulsion Lab expanded their clientele between independent artists and corporate patrons. By 2018, Atassi and Kelly consolidated focus and conceptualized producing their own feature film.
“[Emulsion Lab] is now more of a development and distribution company for our indie films and other indie filmmakers in Chicago,” Atassi says. “Next year, we have a bunch of new projects that we’re trying to take under this banner, so it’s kind of evolved.”
Bad Animal feels like the natural progression for their fledgling production company, marrying the indie music locus that inspired their start with the drive for creating projects that rival the scale of their DIY counterparts.
The filmsprawls across the autumnal Humboldt Park to the skylines of Chicago’s metropolitan center, featuring scenes set inside Roscoe Village’s Beat Kitchen (where actor, musician, and producer Rivkah Reyes of School of Rock famehad their first gig in their high school band) and by the historic Fine Arts Building.
The independent drama follows Chicago rapper Sembré (local rapper/poet and former program director of The Hideout Mykele Deville) and his romantic partner-turned-manager Marlene (Reyes). As Sembré’s latest record Bad Animal builds buzz and critical acclaim, he’s propositioned by producer Evie (Angie Bullaro) with the opportunity for a major label deal.
But as Sembré’s profile heightens, so does the scrutiny of his public image, and all the while his relationship begins to strain as Marlene wrangles with defining herself and questioning whether the sacrifices she’s made were worth the strife.
The film flutters nonlinearly between the halcyon days of Marlene and Sembré’s early relationship and their fracturing present. Atassi confronts the pressurized scrutiny of fame and how autonomous choices can define our most intimate relationships.
Bad Animal is at its most successful when it steeps in the magnetism of its leads and Atassi allows his formalistic muscles to shape the mood. Intimate close-ups of Marlene and Sembré performing seem to excavate the intent of each song, and a later drug-fueled visual sequence impressively revels in nightmarish high contrasts and droning riffs.
Even so, the film often impedes its impact when it inelegantly overstates its themes, particularly within the brief yet pivotal conversations between Sembré and his mother. The conversations never fully trust in their subtext, but it’s not enough to grind the emotional momentum to a halt.
Romantic dramas are propelled by the connection and ineffable chemistry of their leads, and Bad Animal is no different. Reyes and Deville’s previous history as friends and classmates in the University of Illinois Chicago’s theater program is deeply felt throughout.
“Mykele and I go way back to UIC. We used to sit in the green room and run lines for Fool for Love by Sam Shepard,” Reyes says.
Reyes, a Chicago native turned LA transplant, learned about the film through Kelly after they completed a photo shoot together. Knowing they were scouting for rapper actors, Reyes connected them to Deville and threw their own hat into the ring to audition.
“Mykele and Rivkah ended up actually being paired together in their audition, which is really kind of fortuitous because I didn’t know they knew each other,” Atassi says. “They had great chemistry together. A lot of my favorite stuff in the film is their mundane interactions.”
Reyes mentions how much they enjoyed their time on set, working alongside Mykele again and being able to pay tribute to the city and its vibrant community.
“Mykele was great to work with because he’s just such a present performer. His musicality translates to how he acts as well . . . I was just really grateful that I got to be a part of a story that is so rooted in Chicago’s art scene,” Reyes says. “Some of the shots in the film just give you chills.”