Friday, August 29, 2014

1984-a-thon: Beat Street (Movies I Grew Up With)

This post is part of the 1984-a-thon hosted by Todd at Forgotten Films.

I am roughly the same age as hip hop. I honestly remember "Rapper's Delight" by The Sugarhill Gang when it was the hot, new single. I was eight, at the time. I remember shows like Nightline doing their first ever features on hip hop culture with features on Kurtis Blow, break dancing, DJing, and of course, what should be done about the scourge of graffiti.

The true pioneers of the culture are mostly between ten and fifteen years older than I. My uncle was one, in my eyes. You'll probably never hear or read about him unless it were something I said or wrote. Still, he DJ'd parties in our neighborhood that I was truthfully far too young to attend. On occasion, I managed to be in the place where it went down and heard many of the all time great rap songs for the first time because he spun them. Except he didn't just spin them. He also scratched them and mixed them with other records. Yes, actual records. If, at some point in your life, records were not the predominant medium on which you consumed music then everything I've written to this point is probably nothing more than myth to you. The same goes for those of you just not into hip hop. For me, this is concrete and very personal history.

Because of that history I was thrilled to see that Beat Street was still available even though I was a Johnny Come Lately to Todd's 1984-a-thon. He sent out a call for bloggers to each review a movie that was released during 1984, what he thinks is the greatest single year in cinematic history. Is it? I'm not sure, but plenty of great films came out that year. I think all of them have been or will be reviewed this week as part of Todd's blogathon. By having participants sign up for specific movies, he ensured none of them will be reviewed more than once. So really it was just dumb luck that a film so close to my heart was still up for grabs even though I was something like the 115th blogger to sign on. More accurately, it is not one of the greats and it's not as memorable, to most people, as its west coast counterpart, the kinetically energized explosion of pure 80s color palettes  Breakin'. It doesn't have anything even close to being an equivalent to that movie's "Oh shit" moment which was a male extra without a shred of rhythm awkwardly dancing while sporting a unitard. The "Oh shit" part of this is that it's Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Beat Street definitely has some of those type of moments. However, they're only going to be effective for people with knowledge of hip hop history. It's a blast to see Doug E. Fresh just kind of standing around as a party patron then later pop his head out of a curtain to add the only element of hip hop that was missing to that point, beat boxing. By the way, he was interrupting Kool Moe Dee and the Treacherous Three. Legendary break dancers, The Rock Steady Crew show up. Last, but not least, the man who many credit with birthing hip hop has a cameo, Clive "Kool Herc" Campbell. For some of us, that's as big as Stan Lee popping up in a movie featuring characters from Marvel Comics. Whether or not these moments measure up to Breakin', the honest truth is that this is the far superior, and more serious minded of the two. It's also more representative of hip hop as I grew up with it. This is a time when I was in my adolescence. At the same age, the culture was in its infancy  Both of us were going through great changes and feeling our way in the world. People who called themselves grown-ups didn't take us seriously. Their answer to everything was that it was just a phase, something that would pass. They were unaware we would greatly impact the world in both positive and negative ways.

The movie itself is a perfect encapsulation of the New York I grew up in and the hip hop I was becoming more and more a part of with each passing day. Set in the South Bronx, it focuses on a quartet of friends with varying interest within the culture. Our  main protagonist is Kenny, aka Double K (Guy Davis), a local DJ with a growing rep and who includes some freestyle rap into his act. His younger brother Lee (Robert Taylor), the spitting image of a very young Run of Run-DMC, is all about break dancing. The two live with their caring, but frustrated mother Cora (Mary Alice). Chollie (Leon W. Grant) is Kenny's friend and manager. Finally, there's Ramo (Jon Chardiet). He's a graffiti artist who lives for "bombing" trains. This means spray painting elaborate pictures on subway cars and the walls of subway stations. He has an on-going fued with a rival only known as Spit who vandalizes the vandalism. More important than any of this, Ramo has no job and his girlfriend has just recently had their first child. Eventually, the guys meet Tracy (Rae Dawn Chong). She and Kenny do the love story thing.

Having the movie take place during the dead of winter works wonders. The backdrops are all bleak. Piles of snow litter the landscape. It all serves to stress the idea that these are guys with the odds stacked against them, trying to make it in a cold world. Even the fact that much of the movie takes place over the last few weeks of the year when most of us are in a festive mood, we see Christmas pass and end on New Years' Eve, can't help the overall sense of struggle. However, it's not a joyless struggle. All of our heroes enjoy what they do so much as to live for it. They eat, sleep, and drink the particular element of hip hop they engage in.

What also helps is that there is a sense that these are indeed regular dudes. To compare it again to Breakin', it feels much more grounded in reality. Breakin' presents a world where breakers are the scourge of society and function like real deal street gangs. There is also a magical element as perhaps the most memorable scene is a dance routine by the character Turbo during which he levitates a broom stick and makes it dance without touching it. Finally, the clothing the characters wore feel like costumes. They're just over the top colorful and baggy, playing up the silliness of it all. Granted, I've never even been to Los Angeles, where Breakin' is set, but I can't recall a time when it was cool to wear any of the stuff these guys were rocking. Beat Street is quite the opposite. There are numerous dance crews here, but its clear that's all they are. They even dress alike, but its something that looks like you might actually see a bunch of guys all agree to wear. Other characters typically wear jeans, and sneakers. The most elaborate thing they wear are some serious scarfs. The biggest exception is when we see a few hip hop legends perform. Afrika Bambaata and the Soul Sonic Force wear their P-funk/three wisemen inspired gear. Grand Master Melle Mel and the Furious Five sport their jungle/space outfits. They fit in because that's what they actually wore when you see them perform in real life. Beat Street is also more grounded in comparison to another New York-centric hip hop flick that came out a year later, Krush Groove. That movie was a showcase for a roster of Def Jam artists. As such, the people involved were already larger than life to their fans. This film's cast of mostly unknowns adds to the feeling that these are just some guys from around the way.

Another factor that makes it a perfect vehicle for hip hop of the era is that it plays up the idea of being misunderstood. By 1984, the culture was well established, but still evolving rapidly, and not yet accepted by the mainstream as something that was here to stay. The movie expresses this a few different ways. Tracy is in involved with a traditional dance company and has access to all sorts of music equipment. She truly likes Kenny and even Lee, but she doesn't really "get" it. What they do is just some strange and amusing thing. In Lee's case, she and her friends basically exploit him. Ramo is constantly berated by his father who sees no value in graffiti. To him, it's nothing more than criminal activity. Speaking of criminal activity, this brings us back to Lee. Lee and plenty of his buddies in his crew, The Beat Street Breakers, are arrested in the subway during a close quarters dance battle that from afar might appear as a fight. Again, a misunderstanding. By the way, this might be the most truthful scene in the movie as this happened numerous times exactly the way it's depicted in real subways across the Big Apple in the 80s.

To be honest, revisiting this film for the first time as a somewhat seasoned movie buff, I can see that it's deeply flawed. The story meanders for nearly the entire run time. While its wonderfully re-enforcing the notion that hip hop is something misunderstood, and soon to be misappropriated, by the masses, the plot goes nowhere for a long period of time. The lengthy, mostly uneventful audition scene plopped into the middle of the movie doesn't really help. When the movie realizes it must do something, it really only wraps up one of the storylines we've been following for more than an hour and a half. When it does, what the movie says about this particular situation or that of any of the main characters is murky. It plays it as triumphant, but it's bittersweet, at best. At worst, it ends by reinforcing that sense of hopelessness I spoke of, earlier.

There are also some wooden performances. Our two main ladies, Rae Dawn Chong and Mary Alice, are clearly the class of the group. Alice moved on from Beat Street to later win both a Tony and an Emmy. Chong, yes daughter of that Chong, has a lengthy career that is still going. Both are good, here. Another lady, Saundra Santiago, is merely okay, but she's also managed to carve out a nice career. She's had stints on Miami Vice, The Sorpranos, One Life to Live, and currently plays on Gang Related. Guy Davis isn't bad, but lacks charisma. Robert Taylor has charisma, but lacks acting chops. His natural spunk carries him well enough. Jon Chardiet, on the other hand, is all around terrible. This is a problem given he has a healthy part.

In my heart of hearts, I'd say that this is not a great movie when viewed in a vacuum. The problems I detailed weigh heavily on the film's shoulders causing it to slouch and trudge toward the finish line rather than glide through it like a well executed moon walk. That said, I do think it's pretty good. However, when given the context of its place in hip hop history and how well it represents the average kids who adopted the culture as their own, it becomes a significant piece of film. It's even been credited with helping to introduce hip hop culture to various nations around the world. For that, I'd say it's a lot more than a bit contributor to the idea that 1984 might be the greatest year in the history of film. On a more personal note, Beat Street is a movie that represents my experience and that of people I grew up with better than any other about the culture. It speaks directly to me. As a sidenote, this is one of the first movies I went to without an adult present. My friends and I watched this, then snuck into the adjacent theater showing The Karate Kid. Yeah, I like The Karate Kid, and I've seen it four or five times. I LOVE Beat Street, flaws and all. I've loved it every one of the more than dozen plus times I've seen it and I'll love it every time I watch it for the rest of my life.


  1. I forgot about Beat Street! Nice review! I'm loving this 84athon, it's really kind of been a trip down memory lane for me.

    1. Thanks. Its brought back a lot of memories for me, too.

  2. What a good review, Dell. I've never seen this one, but would be in for checking it out. I was 5 in 1984, so I think I could appreciate it, even if it's not a very solid film, technically or otherwise.

    1. Thanks. If you have any memories of mid 80s hip hop this will bring them all back, for sure.

  3. I'm one of those people who doesn't know the first thing about Hip Hop, but I became really intrigued by your review. I'm really wanting to see this movie now! You are like a Hip Hop "missionary". ;)

    1. Wow, thanks! That is high praise, indeed. I hope you get to watch it soon and enjoy it just half as much as I.