Barking up a very tall tree

Who Let the Dogs Out merchandise. Photos: Supplied
Who Let the Dogs Out merchandise. Photos: Supplied
Finally there’s something like an answer to one of the great questions of contemporary music, writes Tom McKinlay.

Documentary maker Brent Hodge credits the anarchy of the University of Otago’s capping shows as part of the reason he’s ended up doing what he does.

"It is definitely the reason. It kickstarted things for me," the Canadian-Kiwi film-maker says on the phone from Vancouver.

Hodge has a new film in the DocEdge festival — which started online yesterday — Who Let The Dogs Out, about the curious and complex back story of the chart-topping song.

It’s the latest in a series of pop-culture ruminations Hodge has been behind, including an award-winning film about grown men who obsess over the children’s cartoon My Little Pony.

"I grew up in Canada but I came down every year, my whole life," Hodge says of his Kiwi connection. His father is a southern man. "And then when it came to college, had to go to Otago. You have to. If you can go, you have to do it," he says.

And while at Otago, doing a BCom, he became involved in the capping show.

"The capping show is a formative experience with going to Otago. It’s very funny, very crass, sometimes it is completely inappropriate but it is there."

Ben Sisto in a scene from the documentary.
Ben Sisto in a scene from the documentary.
Which is maybe a reasonable segue into a documentary about that song.

These days based back in North America, Hodge came across the stage show of one Ben Sisto, who, like a man grabbing hold of an unlikely life raft, had spent the best part of a decade becoming the world’s foremost expert on a Caribbean-infused party song: Who Let the Dogs Out, by Baha Men.

Hodge describes Sisto’s two-hour stage show — in which he answers the question, kind of — as "almost like an Otago lecture".

After he’d witnessed it, he told Sisto he needed to turn it into a film. The story was all there, the characters, the story arc.

The story was also a good fit for Hodgee Films, Hodge’s company, as it allowed the examination of a bigger issue through a familiar pop-culture lens.

"That is kind of our forte with my film company," Hodge says.

Their special talent is to come at things a little sideways, he says. For example, they’ll decide to make a documentary in a fairly well established, conventional and familiar genre, perhaps a sports doc or a music doc, but then something happens.

"It always ends up being weird."

So in the case of the sports documentary you end up with The Pistol Shrimps, about an all-female recreational basketball team with attitude to burn but questionable ball skills.

"In this case it was, ‘if we were to do a music documentary, what would it look like’. I don’t think it would be a bio pic on Bruce Springsteen, or something," he muses.

His music documentary, Who Let the Dogs Out, turns out to be a big story about music ownership, the possibility of synchronicity, copyright and intellectual property, lawyers and litigation.

"There’s a huge mystery behind it of who actually let the dogs out and who owns that song," he says.

The song topped the music chart in New Zealand for two weeks back in 2000, just ahead of the Spice Girls’ Holler and Spiller’s Groovejet. It was the UK’s forth biggest selling single of that year. The following year it picked up a Grammy for Best Dance Recording.

In running down the story, Sisto and Hodge travel from the Bahamas to the UK and back to North America, talking to an ever expanding cast of musicians, music industry hustlers, DJs and, ultimately, sports people, who all have either a claim on the song’s central hook or an opinion about it.

They trace its origins, arguably, all the way back to 1986.

Hodge says he has no particular affection for the song himself.

"I don’t find it annoying, I don’t like it. What I liked was it is a very typical disposable pop song. It is a great example for a bigger story. I love that."

Hodge has several films in the works, including a documentary about priests who play football in the Vatican.

"It also tackles the ups and downs and hardships of priesthood and religion right now in pop culture," he says.

The benefit of having several films on the go at once is that he can afford to exercise some patience while the a story emerges and takes shape, he says.

"It can take a while with a documentary. Sometimes those characters don’t come that easily.

"You don’t write it ... you could never make some of this stuff up.

"Sometimes you just get really lucky. You get into the idea, you know there is something there, then when that character comes you drop to your knees and thank God that it happened."

The film

Who Let the Dogs Out screens as part of the online DocEdge film festival on Friday, June 19 at 10pm and Friday, June 26 at 1pm.

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