Fame is a tricky thing, especially when it comes to the music industry. In some cases, the climb is a better experience than reaching the top of the mountain. There are expectations, requests, loss of privacy, obligations to a label (and sometimes a sense of self), all in the name of chasing that next hit. There are a lot of themes within writer-director Justin Chon’s Jamojaya that feel familiar within the spectrum of father/son relationships and the quest of being your most authentic self in a place that’s trying to unravel what that means. Before the film goes into the strife of its characters, it anchors itself with a legend of its title.
Jamojaya is a tale that recalls an older brother who gets transformed into a banyan tree. As that happens, his brother asks to be turned into a bird to look for him. However, the sadness derives from the younger brother's inability to recognize the other in his new form. The film references this tale throughout its narrative and often makes inferences about who the legend's characters are.
Joyo (Yayu A.W. Unru) has been overseeing his son’s James (Brian Imanuel) budding rap career since he was young. The team has experienced some success in their native Indonesia, but an American record label has noticed James's potential to be a star on the rise and signs him to a contract. Joyo’s heart is in the right place, but let’s be honest – he doesn’t know the ins and outs of the business. Given that revelation, James decides to let his father know he will be replacing him on an Indonesian television show. That’s a hard pill to swallow for any parents – especially when you consider that Joyo and James share a bond through tragedy.
Jaya, James’s brother, died in a plane crash, and the narration from Joyo will lead the viewer to believe that he was the “strong one,” Is this just a father who is afraid of losing his grip on his remaining son, or is his overprotectiveness warranted? Jamojaya plays with this idea through an array of interesting visualization choices from cinematographer Ante Cheng. Some shots throughout this film convey how much Joyo feels like an outsider and how James gets overwhelmed in place of bright lights.
While James is working on his first album in Hawaii, he gets the first taste of what it feels like to have a curated vision. His new manager Michelle (Kate Lyn Sheil), has a more detached view regarding an emotional connection to his music. It’s adjacent to record label owner Michael (Henry Ian Cusick), who will cut out anything in James’s musical regiment to make him more appealing to the public. That means firing his long-time producer, changing his look, and pushing him to make a “danceable” first single.
In this backdrop of all this strife, there’s Joyo – absolutely refusing James’s inferences to go back home to Indonesia. He is willing to go as far as making himself James’s assistant and doing odd jobs around the sets for the crew to stay close to him. Unru conveys a lot in his facial expressions and eyes about the hurt and anxiousness he feels seeing his son slip away. At one point, he mentions that Hawaii is reminiscent of Indonesia in the lusciousness of nature. No matter how much insistence James exerts trying to detach himself from Joyo, he won’t let him go.
Many of Jamojaya’s more powerful scenes occur with just Imanuel and Unru in seclusion – even if they feel they repeat themselves. For everything we learn about this father-and-son relationship, there’s little to know about James’ ambitions as an artist. In the film, there’s an urge for him to break away from this cocoon his father has made for him. Despite seeing the adversarial tiffs he has with management, there’s not a lot to define his why. This has the character being trusted into the same scenarios – no matter how emotionally enthralling they may be.
Stardom comes with a cost – a price many people will gladly pay the toll for. If you’re a young person on its doorstep, wouldn’t it be tempting to? That’s at least what Brian ponders, but the family he has left beckons him to remember why he started. We’ve seen variations of this story in the past – with varying degrees of tragedy and triumph. Chon at least tries to feature his two interesting aspects to the forefront more times than not.