Monday, January 25, 2016

2016 Blind Spot Series: Wild Style


We've finally arrived at my first entry in the 2016 Blind Spot Series...


Why did I pick it? One of the criteria for participating in Ryan’s Blind Spot Challenge is that we choose films “of some significance.” It’s a vague statement many bloggers rightfully take to mean movies considered to be classics by the masses that they haven’t seen yet. So, of course, my first pick for 2016 is something most of my blogging buddies have probably never even heard of. Still, I consider it to be a gaping hole in my film viewing life. Why that is goes back to my taste in music. I love lots of different types, but hip hop is my favorite by a wide margin. Depending on who you ask I’m a year or two older than the culture itself. It was born in the South Bronx in New York. I was born a few miles away in Queens. We grew up together. Just by always having it around, I became pretty knowledgeable about its history. This includes cinematically. Name a movie of importance to that history and chances are I’ve seen it. Beat Street. Check. Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. Check. Krush Groove. Double check. House Party. Triple check. Wild Style. No. And this is a film many deem to be the most important of them all. The reason is that by most accounts it’s the very first hip hop film. Based on the intertwining lives of myself and the culture, this is something I should be featuring in my Movies I Grew Up With series. Instead, it’s the film I’m most embarrassed to have included on my Blind Spot List. I should have seen this twenty times by now.

Our story? Raymond (Lee Quiñones) is a graffiti artist who goes by the name Zoro. While most have crews they hang with, he’s a loner who hides his identity even though his work is known as some of the best in the city. An old friend who knows who he is tries to get him to open up due to the possibility of earning money as legitimate art dealers are becoming interested and Virginia (Patti Astor), a newspaper journalist, is coming to do a story on the craft that the establishment sees as vandalism.


The first thing that jumps off the screen at the viewer is something that happens pretty much by accident in movies set in New York during the 1970s and ‘80s. There is an unshakeable grittiness to the city that serves as a perfect setup and backdrop for a story about graffiti artists. The obvious lack of sophisticated film equipment actually enhances the viewing experience. I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole film were shot for not much more that the cost of a couple cameras. Cheap ones. Like you, I’ve gotten used to watching things shot in crystal clear digital. That, and even high end gear of the early 1980s would have done Wild Style a disservice. The look of the film pulls us deeper into the world of its characters than a movie filled with sharp, pristine cinematography ever could. These artists are not snooty Bohemians sipping wine in their studios while contemplating what to put up on their expensive canvas. These are people who create elaborate paintings virtually in the dark and without brushes, but with the least artistic tool you could possibly find: cans of spraypaint. Late at night, they sneak into train yards or some other restricted area and use their habitat as both their muse and their canvas. These are guerilla artists helping to define a culture as they go along. When the look of the film is so naturally gritty and unpolished, it accentuates who these particular people are.

The actual story leaves a lot to be desired. A plot driven by a talented but reluctant artist is a familiar one. Like so many participants in so many sub-cultures, he doesn’t want to sell out. This part of the movie works fairly well as it goes along. The two biggest subplots both feel half-baked. One involves the newspaper reporter slumming it with our heroes. She’s a bubbly woman clearly representative of that part of white suburban America fascinated by what goes in in the ‘hood enough to occasionally join in on what they think is fun. Though she encounters some rough characters along the way, including very nearly being mugged, she has enough of a good time that she serves as a conduit for white viewers to learn that not all blacks and Hispanics are criminals. It’s all fairly typical, even for films of the early ‘80s, but it’s a blast to watch. The other subplot is rather tepid, wholly unconvincing love story involving Zoro and his girlfriend Ladybug (Lady Pink). Nothing about it works, not least of which is the fact that it’s flat out boring. There is another strand of the story involving Zoro’s family, particularly his brother, not being thrilled with what he’s doing with his life. Aside from this scene being used a decade later as part of the intro to my favorite album of all-time, Illmatic by Nas, it goes absolutely nowhere.

The weirdest, but most entertaining portions of the film is when it suddenly detours into musical territory. There are a number of stage performances by popular rappers of the day, but that’s not what I’m talking about. By the way, the reason we get these performances is that Zoro’s friend Phade is a party promoter/pseudo-manager for many of these acts. He is played by legendary hip hop figure Fab Five Freddy. In real life, Freddy would later rise to fame as host of MTV’s Yo! MTV Raps. Anyhoo, I’m talking about one specific scene. Lots of movies have depicted rap battles. The way it’s done here is so bizarre no film has even come close to duplicating except, brace yourself, High School Musical. No, there is not rapping in HSM, but there is a musical number involving a basketball game. Here, we actually get a rap battle/pick-up game. Two rival rap groups decide to play a friendly game that starts with each member of their crew introducing themselves with a couplet. The rapping then continues throughout the game with each guy dropping a verse when the ball comes his way. As you might imagine, not much ball is actually played. It’s quite possibly the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.

Yup, this is the start of the basketball game.
The pure nutty-greatness of the basketball battle highlights another issue with Wild Style. It’s a very uneven watch. There are a lot of peaks and valleys. For every scene that tickles us in just the right spots, there is another that doesn’t work so well. The story-telling is partly to blame. It just doesn’t put as much effort into certain plotlines. The worst offense is the ending that isn’t one. The film just sort of stops with all sorts of loose strings still flapping about. It plays like its meant to be an “I’ve seen the mountaintop” moment, but it feels like an unnecessarily abrupt stoppage. Another reason it’s uneven, maybe a bigger one, is the acting by the mostly amateur cast. B-movie vet Patti Astor as the news reporter and the aforementioned Fab Five Freddy give the most natural performances. In the case of the latter, it’s understandable why MTV would eventually come calling. The rest of the cast, including Quiñones in the lead role, are not so hot. He struggles mightily with context appropriate line deliveries and over-emoting. In other words, you can see him “acting” all over the place. Others suffer from the same affliction. It makes certain scenes tough to slog through. Still, it's understandable given that much of the cast, Quiñones included, are amateurs who were cast because they really were graffiti artists, rappers, dancers, and/or DJs. A number of them have risen to iconic stature within the culture such as Busy Bee, The Rock Steady Crew, The Cold Crush Brothers, and Grandmaster Flash.

Though fun, with a number of excellent moments, it never rises to the level of greatness. That said, its status as a hip hop classic is well earned. A lot of it has to do with it being the first hip hop movie. Once a group of people have identified themselves as part of a sub-culture, it is extremely powerful for those people to see themselves depicted on the screen for the first time. Therefore, I fully understand the appeal this movie had in early ‘80s, despite its shortcomings. Those of us who decided love this thing called hip hop, collectively live through infancy, and feel the wobble of its first steps can’t help but be proud that we are in a movie. I may have missed it back then, and three decades have passed in the interim, but I still get those feelings. I remember what it was like on a cold winter New York day, sitting in a shabby unheated theater with my friends, all of us being warmed by the glow of Beat Street radiating from the screen. Wild Style won’t suddenly start coming up when I think of, or discuss, the greatest films of all-time unless we’re talking hip hop films (HINT), but it does give me those same warm and fuzzies.


Previous Blind Spot Entries

20 comments:

  1. You're right, I've never heard of this, but I like that you went this direction with finding a film that reflects your love of hip hop. It sounds interesting. Great review!

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  2. I have heard about this but I've only seen bits of this as I sometimes get this confused with Beat Street that I think featured Ice-T in an early role.

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    1. Almost. It's Breakin' and it's sequel that featured Ice-T.

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  3. I know you are a hip hop fan so it figures you would watch this. I think they may have mentioned this movie in And You Don't Stop: 30 Years Of Hip Hop (2004). Because I'm interested in early 80s music, I might watch it for the soundtrack. I'm happy you enjoyed yourself, even if it was uneven.

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    1. Been a while since I've seen that doc, but I think you're right.

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  4. I happened to see this myself about a month ago. I agree the acting shows their amateur origins. I found the graffiti storyline to be uninteresting. For me, the reason to watch this movie is to see and listen to the rapping, back before it got merged with 70s R&B and became easy listening.

    With the number of mentions of Debbie Harry, and the use of her song Rapture, I think they wanted her for the role of the reporter but for some reason couldn't get her.

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    1. You're exactly right. They did want Deborah Harry. Haven't found out why they couldn't get her. Glad you enjoyed some aspects of it.

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  5. I feel you, man. Movies are a personal experience, so you might as well seek out movies YOU deem to be significant. As predicted, I have not heard of this movie, but it seems like something worth a watch, an experience of low budget niche filmmaking. Those can be great experiences. Glad you got to it!

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    1. Totally agree that movies are a personal experience. Thanks for understanding my choice. This is definitely low budget niche filmmaking, but it is fun from that viewpoint.

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  6. The whole basketball rap scene makes me think of that epic music video for MonStars from Space Jam. LOL...LOVE! I've never heard of this, and I can't say that it sounds like something I'd really respond to, but I'm glad you were able to see it and check it off your personal blind spot list!

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    1. 🎵🎶 "If I hit 'em high (hit 'em high, hit 'em high, hit 'em high)
      Then you hit 'em low (hit 'em low, hit 'em low, hit 'em low)" 🎵🎶

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  7. I'm so blind I've never even heard of this.
    I sort of think your review might be the best thinga bout it though.

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    1. Might be right. Thus is certainly for a very specific crowd.

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  8. This definitely sounds like something I could get behind. That hoops scene alone has me drooling in anticipation.

    Man, as a kid, early 80s NY seemed like a scary ass place. Now, the only thing that terrifies me is how f--king expensive it is.

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    1. I'd love to see the yays and boos on this one. And it is streaming on Netflix.

      And yeah, 80s era NY was a very different place than current day NY.

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  9. This is a wonderful review. I'd never heard of this movie, and it sounds worthwhile, albeit flawed. I have never warmed up to hip-hop, but I would like to learn a little bit about the music and culture.

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    1. Thanks. Worthwhile, but flawed sounds about right. Not sure how much this will teach you about the culture, but it will give you a sense of what it was like in the early 80s. VH1 did a wonderful documentary called "And Ya Don't Stop" that would be way more educational. If I remember, it aired in three parts, roughly an hour each. If that's too much, there are a number of other shorter docs that would also help.

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