Spend enough time in Oxnard, California, and you’ll likely bump into local legend Cola Boyy. Plying a disco-inspired sound, he’s a bit of hometown hero. Which might be why Elliott Smith collaborator Ross Harris decided to direct Smoke ‘em got ‘em, a short-form documentary about the Cola Boyy story to date.
Focused on Cola Boyy’s origins and ideologies, it’s a warm and funny look into the world of a talent whose disability and unique physique empowers him to create a sound that we’re going to term “distinctly Oxnardian”. You can have that one on us. The disability that affects Cola Boyy’s whole body forced him to become ambidextrous; he played the guitar with his right hand and wrote with his left, lending his music a distinct feel.
Having worked on projects like the aforementioned Elliott Smith videos, the Dungeon Sessions for Stones Throw Records, and a series of videos for fellow-Oxnardian Anderson Paak, Smoke ‘em got ‘em sees Ross – who as a child actor starred in Airplane! which is still, by the way, the funniest film ever – returning home to document life and culture in the city.
Having grown up in Oxnard, Ross thinks that the “melting pot” nature of the city makes it such an exciting space for creatives. “People from all over come to Oxnard for economic reasons,” he says. “That’s traditionally how any artistic community of note is able to form and exist.”
Ross – who has shot for commercial clients like Vans, Givenchy, and Whole Foods – goes on to tell us that it was the double whammy of Bennett Miller’s The Cruise and S.R. Bindler’s cult classic Hands on a Hardbody that made him really want to work in the medium. “The former is the best documentary I’ve ever seen on New York City, and the latter is a total immersion into small-town Texas. Both are very American but from opposite ends of the spectrum.”
The short film explores how important activism and representation are, and Ross says he was keen to avoid exploitation on any level. “With Cola, it was apparent that his activism and politics were a big aspect of his life and art from the jump. So that became a big focus because his music is an extension of his beliefs. I think if you allow people to tell their story honestly it’s always going to feel right. It’s really up to the subject to be open and allow themselves to be vulnerable. Which is a brave thing.”
With friends making him aware of Cola Boyy’s music, Ross got in touch with the man himself online. “I wasn’t aware that the prior work he’d done was his,” Cola Boyy admits, “but I had definitely seen it.”
Not knowing it was him behind the camera of works I was familiar with, I think helped with our introduction, because there’s less pretence behind the first interactions in moments like this,” he tells us. “Also I just generally enjoy talking to people, debating, arguing whatever so I said fuck it let’s meet up and do this. Plus It’s not every day I get to do the sort of video shoot type deal in the comfort of my own city.”
The plan, he says, was just to discuss the music he makes, but as soon as the cameras started rolling, politics and “ideological engagements” came into play. “I’m always understanding and analysing phenomenon through its relationship with capitalism. This includes the world of music and the songs I write,” Cola Boyy says.