The bodies glisten, sweat slicking skin until the light radiates off it. The sparkle meshes with the energy being thrown off by the dancer and the two combine to produce a beam of power so forceful it literally knocks the breath from your lungs. As arms swirl and dive, and limbs kick and careen, you start to see little symbols and small patterns. Wrapped up inside this chaotic, anarchic expression of self are decades of prejudice, years of poverty, hours of intolerance and seconds of self-actualization. Since it is not so much choreographed as felt, because moves, by the participant's admission, change daily, each session is a new beginning. It's the ultimate interpretation of the time and place, the people and the prevailing mood. Sometimes, it's serene and flowing. Other times it's angry and aggressive. Call it clowning or krumping, but whatever it is, it's a dance unlike any that has come before. Less mannered than breaking, more ghetto than the moves made famous in the 70s, this is a pure expression of the urban soul - and it's amazing to behold.
Director David LaChapelle knows this all too well. A photographer and music video maker by trade, he stumbled upon the LA krump scene while working on a video for Christina Aguilera, and was immediately struck by the desire to document this fascinating form of freestyle expression. Little did he know that there was an entire movement underway in the crime-ridden sections of Southern California. Kids, without direction or families to help them find it, had begun creating dance troupes, off shoots of an original group made up of kid's party clowns. The leader, a cherubic Cheshire named Tommy, had found a way to turn his life around via a new form of physical expression. This wasn't popping or lockin' in the conventional sense. It wasn't gangbanging minus the gun and the gripe. No, this was just dancing, a way to help a body free itself, a way of getting the essence straight with the spirit. It was meant to bring about hope. It was meant to make the people Rize.
All roads indeed lead to Tommy Johnson. A one time drug dealer and ex-con, this almost lost man found God, and along with the Lord, he discovered clowning. A desperate friend needed entertainment for her child's birthday, and Tommy answered the call. Soon, he was a fixture in South Central Los Angeles, working almost every party and passing along his Pied Piper of Empowerment to all the people he came in contact with. Some wanted to learn how he moved, to dance the way he did. Others just sought his seemingly sage advice. Tommy started a clown academy to teach his recruits the basics of his beliefs and bravado of his body language. Soon, Tommy the Hip Hop Clown's group were local celebrities and spawned dozens of imitators. Eventually, a few factions broke off to form their own stylized version of the clown vibe. The most aggressive and expressive is krump, a hard driving, fast moving ballet of the black experience in America.
It was this story, and the current dichotomy between the showmanship of the "clowns" and the seriousness of the "krumps" that form the basis for Dave LaChappelle's remarkable documentary Rize. Arguably one of the greatest films about dance ever made, as well as a remarkable testament to the talent of a wide variety of displaced youth, Rize resonates with a freshness and a force that is all too lacking in current cinematic language. Part narrative, part staged showcase, this exceptional example of found art is so energetic and alive that it physically vibrates off the screen. As the dancers dive and swerve, as their bodies bop and bounce at physics defying angles and speed, a kind of aptitude telekinesis occurs. You can feel your own muscles flexing. You sense the step in your feet quickening, the ligaments in your legs stretching and striving. Before you know it, the groove has gone from interesting to infectious, and your entire being is lost in a vibe of ungodly grace. You are instantly transported to a realm of pure power, unbridled agility mixed with cold fixed concentration. When the scene ends, you're exhausted both physically and mentally. You've been krumped, and the feeling is an epiphany, almost sublime.
Like it must have felt to watch the first break-dancers discovering the flawless pleasure of physical fluency (you can see some of it in the seminal doc Style Wars), the clowning and kurmping at the center of this film is like nothing we've witnessed in the predominantly pre-packaged post-millennial marketplace. Since MTV and channels of its ilk dictate the form and the fashion of popular culture, it's kind of surprising to see LaChapelle in the lead. Not that he doesn't understand trends or the more obscure elements of the underground. He is an artist who has strived to be at the forefront of such subjects. No, it's just that those of us who are past the demographically desirable age of the tween/teen target arena of the music video world would have no knowledge of such a situation, and it is usually the so-called 'music television' that would provide the hints. While krumping has been prevalent in a few famous clips (Missy Elliot, Black Eyed Peas) LaChapelle is dragging it into the spotlight where it belongs. It's fine for a multi-platinum musician to utilize their talents. But they deserve their own glory and LaChapelle has provided it.
There is a refreshing lack of 'whiteness' here, a chance to finally see people of color embracing something of their own make and model. While there is nothing wrong with the Caucasian contingent that takes part in the current hip hop culture, it is far more compelling to see the originators of a form take full responsibility. There is just something about seeing some coattail riding wannabes swipe yet another cultural concept from those who invented it that's bothersome. The beauty in blackness, the fire and defiance is written across the ripped bodies and harried faces of these spellbinding performers and ever true to his visual roots, LaChapelle captures it in stunning displays of optical overkill. Rize is an amazing looking documentary, thanks in part to the partially staged material. You can tell there are times when the dancers are being directed, placed in atmospheric and decorative settings (a strange baby blue room, the LA aqueduct) and given free reign to rejoice. It helps remove the act from the actors, and allows the true nature of the dance to unfold without the contextual backdrop of poverty or pain.
Unlike other similar subjected documentaries, LaChapelle is not making a grand social statement. Sure, the film starts with the clips of the Watts Riots in 1965, and the Rodney King verdict chaos in 1992, but after those minor moments of preaching, he lets the people paint their own portrait. We experience very little of the poverty and crime first hand. Instead, it is offered up in an anecdotal, confessional style, incorporated into the conversations with the camera just as it is part of the everyday life of these young people. Certain stories stand out: Miss Prissy and her considered comments about being a woman of color in the mostly white world of Hollywood; Dragon, who spent his youth raising his brothers and sisters while their mother battled substance abuse; Lil C and the devastating story surrounding his father; Tight Eyez and his father-like friendship as a mentor to Baby Tight Eyez; The numerous shout outs to Tommy, especially from those who feel that his influence and his instruction kept them off the street.
LaChapelle does a very smart narrative thing here. He lets Tommy frame the story, and then splits away from him to tell the rest of the tale. This is not all about clowning, and how krump has modified the original elements of the movement. It is not a story of how Tommy is viewed as part entrepreneur, part self-centered egotist who hasn't quite fathomed that his initial idea has now grown to envelope and overwhelm him. It's not even a faux competition known as Battlezone, where various clown/krump crews from the area get together to dance against each other for trophies and bragging rights. Like the stories of crime and crisis, these seemingly important ideas are merely merged into the mix, used for their own sense of drama or detail, but never allowed to destroy the focus. Even when Tommy faces a major problem near the end, it's not the line that LaChapelle's narrative wants to follow. No, Rize is all about the art of dance, about the joy in movement and the perseverance in personal accomplishment. Nothing's going to beat it down.
For these kids, clowning/krumping is more than just a trend or a fad. It is a found purpose. It is a family where none existed before. It is unity and dignity, spirituality and spontaneity in a world where such sentiments are beaten and broken. But to watch the action, to see the combination of defiance and definition on the faces and figures of these dancers, is to witness the decades of disenfranchisement and despair. LaChapelle didn't need talking head interviews to address subject like racism, urban blight or a sense of hopelessness. It is these ideas that krumpers battle, arms flailing in defensive/offensive moves, at war with an unseen enemy that seems intent on stealing their humanity out from under them. When we see Lil C dancing on the shore of the Pacific Ocean, sun setting off on the horizon, we see a visual reminder of that classic line of poetry about "raging against the dying of the light". Rize argues that these at-risk youths with there foundationless personal lives will not go quietly against those who would discount them. They will fight, but not with their fists. They will clash with their creativity. They will win with their new notion of self worth.
In the end, pride is what Rize is all about. While other artistic movements have been directly tied to the people who produce them, clowning/krumping seems somehow different. Because it is so physical, so completely created out of the corporeal concept inside each and every dancer, the dimensions collapse and become concentrated. Instead of representing all youth, these kids represent themselves. Styles may seem similar and moves may be matched and mixed, but this concept connects at such a human level because it is individual expression that is the source of the sizzle. Faces are painted in similar fashion - each one holds special meaning to the creator. Crews aren't crafted out of joint decision or mutual mission. There is a naturalness to the way they come together. Mindsets meet up and click. Stories find their similarities and take hold. As joints jerk and swivel, as muscles flex and fire off, krumping becomes a kind of call. Not to arms, necessarily. It's more of the wake-up variety. There is life outside of the pain of their place for these kids. All they have to do is recognize it. All they have to do is "rize" above.
Shot on digital without fancy lighting or studio professionalism, Rize looks absolutely amazing. The 1.33:1 full frame image - the original aspect ratio - is filled with vibrancy and heat, a radiant amount of power and passion that almost sends shockwaves through the scenes. Some may argue over the lack of a 16x9 format, but frankly, this is one of the rare cases where letterboxing or the false creation of a widescreen matt would destroy the carefully crafted compositions, as well as the main purpose of the film. The dancers of Rize fill the screen, their bodies front and center during their whirling dervish explosion of expression. Cutting off their heads or legs to fit some sort of home theater aesthetic is antithetical to art. It may make big screen TV owners happy, but it would do nothing but destroy LaChapelle's vision.
As with any movement, clown/krump has developed a repertoire of rap/hip-hop music to fit its features. The songs here, delivered in a bass-heavy and decibel deep Dolby Digital Stereo 5.1 (there is a 2.0 track as well), are sensational. Lyrics trace the history of the style, beats providing the necessary rhythms to keep the feet moving and the bodies bombing. When the music ends and the talking begins, the presentation is still perfect. Voices are discernible and easy to understand and LaChapelle makes sure to capture all-important conversations with crystal clarity. Matching the visuals in technical flawlessness, the sonic situation for Rize is equally effective.
Lion's Gate does an excellent job of fleshing out this DVD package. To get things started, LaChapelle and the dancers are back for three separate featurettes. First, the director introduces the film, and let's the cast give their shout outs before the presentation begins. Next, he discusses working on the movie with his amazing director of photography and their homemade Steadicam gimble (a backpack with a metal pole sticking out of it). Finally, we are treated to a round table discussion that gives the performers a chance to catch up on life since the film hit, as well as discuss the impact it has had on them as individuals. All three segments are engaging and enlightening. We can really sense that the film had an amazing impact on LaChapelle and the dancers.
Similarly, a Q&A at the Tribeca Film Festival allows us to gauge audience reaction, and to see the cast functioning under the glare of sudden fame. There is a collection of deleted scenes (about seven in all, with the best being Dragon's amazing cooking skills as he prepares a lasagna and chicken wing feast) and a chance to catch certain dance moves as several of the participants show - and explain - their signature steps. Perhaps the best bonus bit in this section is the extended dance numbers. Free from narrative drive or crosscutting interference, the pure joy of krumping, and overwhelming beauty of the athleticism and agility comes pouring forth. It is spellbinding stuff. Add in a stellar LaChapelle photo gallery (it is clear why this man has such a marvelous reputation) and a series of trailers and you've got a very good digital presentation.
The icing on the cake though is the commentary track from the director. You can literally feel LaChapelle's passion for the subject in the way he describes the film. He is a wealth of information, providing backstory on several of the dancers and defending his decision to not delve deeper into their lives. For LaChapelle, the message is in the performance, not the same old urban ghetto squalor. He believes as Miss Prissy does - this is not exploitation, this is existence. The way these kids live is important, but it is not the whole point. LaChapelle also defends the Battlezone segment, as well as the non-linear logic to his narrative. Overall, it's a great alternate track and allows us to go deeper into this entire movement without losing the magic of the movie itself.
At a certain point, clowning/krumping will face a fateful fork in the road. If it's lucky, it will remain local and strong. Those who participate will resist the temptation to exploit its personal power for the possibility of mainstream material success, and just as slowly as it started, it will fade away and form into some other manner of important social/cultural movement. However, there is another road that can be taken, one far less friendly and - if you believe our current crass mindset - far more likely. Youths around the world, tired of trying to devise their own sense of purpose, will latch on to this latest "craze" and belittle it to the point where it no longer holds its inner meaning. Instead of being an expression of empowerment and personal spirit, it will be the backdrop to a Gap commercial, or a repellant way to sell hamburgers or soft drinks.
There is nothing wrong with using your gifts as a means of making a name for yourself, and the clowns/krumpers deserve all the accolades that can be afforded to them. But there is something different about this dance style, more indicative of a social status than ever before. And that deserves respect, not ripping off. Rize reminds us that not every novelty needs to become the fabric of fashion. Sometimes, it's better to let those who created it care for and nurture it. It is only fair. It was born from their life. They should be allowed to live it.
Want more Gibron Goodness?
Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here