Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Style It Up

One of my absolute favourite "'80s movies" - you know the ones, those heavily steeped in the style of the 1980s and representative of the decade from a pop culture standpoint (so, not necessarily the highest of art) - is Stan Lathan's groundbreaking 1984 dance movie Beat Street. It preceded by the much more famous Breakin' by a mere two months, and subsequently grossed half as much at the box office, but it's Beat Street that remains the more satisfying. It's less gimmicky for one, and while it could have easily rested on its laurels of having one of the finest soundtracks ever conceived (two of them actually, the first film to ever have multiple compilation soundtracks released), it actually quite a fine dramatic thrust, some solid performances and Lathan plus his cinematographer Tom Priestley Jr have a vision of New York and the Bronx that is instantly distinctive. It's like comparing Step Up to Save the Last Dance; one is clearly superior to the other (note: it's the latter).

Beat Street, however, wasn't just an east coast hip-hop musical (a musical that featured Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five, The System, Jazzy Jay, The Treacherous 3, Afrika Bambaataa and the Sonic Soul Force, Debbie D, Harry Belafonte and the Rock Steady Crew - amazing!), it was also a fascinating look at the underground graffiti art scene. It was a movement that is a simpler version of those displayed in Exit Through the Gift Shop, but far more complicated and skillful than the straightforward tagging that you might see sprawled across the fences that run along local train lines in this day and age.

The New York graffiti scene was first given high profile exposure in documentaries Style Wars (which aired on American network PBS in 1983) and Stations of the Elevated from 1980, although the former is far better known. As far as I am aware though it was Wild Style from 1983 that gave the scene it's first feature film. While it's not much of a film in the traditional sense - the plot is almost non-existent, the actors are barely up to the task and it was obviously made on such a threadbare budget that "independent cinema" seems like a barely adequate term. What it is, however, is still a thrilling look at such an iconic moment in the histories of art, music, dance, pop culture and life in general. While Beat Street represents a more theatrical version of the era - with subway battles between rival crews, dramatic death sequences and high gloss production values - Wild Style is a rougher, more dangerous and authentic view at this incredibly fascinating moment in time.

Wild Style ('83) | Beat Street ('84)

The scant amount of plot that director Charlie Ahearn shoehorns into the proceedings involves a small collection of graffiti artists who reside in the Bronx. A journalist that looks amazingly like Debbie Harry, and who listens to Blondie on her car tape player (not surprising since Chris Stein produced the film's music), enters the community and follows various players throughout their nightly routines of spraying New York City metro subway cars and partying at underground hip-hop clubs where local rappers do battle for money. Mostly following "Zoro", a well-respected graffiti artist who, along with a local club owner, aim to put on a big show in the amphitheater by the harbour. The actors all play variations on their real life personas (Zoro, for instance, is played by Lee Quinones, one of the most famous graffiti artists of all time) and a lot of the film follows a documentary aesthetic as these people merely go about their lives, wishing for someone to take their art seriously and propel them to the big time.

Throughout the film we see many, many spectacular pieces of this street art that, once upon a time, decorated entire length subway trains. Their painters, who would spend all time designing and painting them, watching from the windows of worn down buildings in their neighbourhood as the trains go by on the above-ground train networks through the Bronx. The hip-hop scenes are positively catchy and energetic, a perfect example of the east coast hip-hop style of music that remains to this day one of my personal favourite genres. Amazingly complex musical constructions, breathtaking lyrical flows within the raps and an unabashed desire to push music forward.

From the opening credit sequence that merges graffiti with animation, to the music scenes that bring the house down, the breakdancing that defies gravity and flexibility, and the art of graffiti given centre stage, Wild Style is an important film that captures an iconic moment in time. It's budget/cast's limitations actually give it a rawness that helps to put the focus squarely on the talent. Anyone with even the slightest interest in art and music (and not only from this time period) should check Wild Style (and, for that matter, Beat Street) out. A-


remi online said...

i think you convinced me to see it, because i didn't see a good movie for a wille..except inception.

Anonymous said...

Style Wars is trying to make a new version on blu-ray. Check this out: