Beat Street (1984)
Rae Dawn Chong, Guy Davis, Grand Master Melle Mel and the Furious Five, The Treacherous Three, Doug E. Fresh, Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force, DJ Kool Herc. Directed by Stan Lathan.
In 1984 I was 15 and deep into my if-it-doesn’t-rock-it-sucks phase (of which my younger sister rightfully declared, “this new you sucks”), so that year’s Beat Street could have won an Oscar for Least Likely to be Seen by Me. But I was a child, and I spoke as a child, and I understood as a child, and I thought as a child. When I became a man, I put away childish things. In this way, as I made a list of 1984 films to catch up on, and Beat Street came up in my exploration, I uttered an enthusiastic “Well, why not?” as I added it to the queue.
The central character, Kenny Kirkland (“Double K”), is an aspiring DJ, spending his days mixing in his bedroom and his nights performing at dances in abandoned buildings. His little brother Lee is the youngest but most promising dancer in a breakdance crew, and their neighborhood friend Ramon (“Ramo”) is a notorious street artist who specializes in whole subway cars. Each tries to make it in the hip-hop culture, even though they don’t have a real concept of what that looks like. In 1984 there’s no path to a career in graffiti, and breakdancing is little more than something to gawk at, misinterpreted even by the neighborhood police as aggressive behavior.
To its credit, the film does more than just try to capitalize on urban youth culture of the mid-Eighties. It dips its toes into the deep end of the pool, addresses easy stereotypes and a few other social issues. Kenny and Lee are young black men, but their closest friends are Latino, white, and black (alas, there is nary an Asian to be seen, but not every film can be set in a Benetton ad), and it’s not a big deal. Ramon has a girlfriend and an infant, and as his street fame grows, so do his responsibilities to his loved ones. His misunderstanding father is wrong about Ramon’s art, but maybe he’s right about getting a real job. When a pretty music student at the city college (Rae Dawn Chong as Tracy—oh wait! There’s our Asian!) invites Lee to do a demo at her school, Kenny goes recognizes it as a cultural appropration of Lee’s moves, biting in the worst way.
A film about any one of these three young men might have been a better approach so that we could get a little more depth at the expense of breadth, but the wide view of rapping, DJing, breaking, and street art as connected parts of a whole culture, isn’t a bad idea. The film gives props to some of hip-hop’s prominent pioneers, including some oft-forgotten leaders like Kool Herc and the Treacherous Three, whose socially-themed, kind of clownish performance of “Santa Rap” features one of my favorites, Kool Moe Dee rapping without his signature shades.
Beat Street makes a few bad decisions, mostly in its presentation of the performers. There is a certain live hip-hop sound that the film fails to capture. The performers lip-sync to their tracks, giving the musical scenes, of which there are many, a cheap MTV look, but without the production value. Just about every number looks like a rap performed by people who don’t rap, which in most cases just isn’t true. I’ve never seen Melle Mel live, but the Furious Five’s ending performance looks like the worst of the Solid Gold performances. This should not be.
The acting is flat almost throughout, except for Rae Dawn Chong, who’s quite good. In fact, the other actors are better when they’re in scenes with her. But you’re not watching the film for the acting, really. It’s the musical and dance sequences that carry the film, and as a time capsule of a certain angle on mid-Eighties hip-hop, a 100-level introductory course, it’s passable.