The history of sneakers as a part of hip hop culture doesn't sound like too rich of a subject, and for all its impressive flair and energy the documentary Just For Kicks isn't able to fully turn it into one. That's a shame since the film itself is a fun watch, filled with interesting characters and cinematic flourishes that ultimately ends up pretty forgettable.
Starting along with the early breakdancing and hip hop pioneers of the late Seventies, sneaker street evolution grew organically, based on what was most comfortable to move in and what would make the sharpest impression. Since sneakers were marketed almost entirely to athletes this slowly building groundswell of interest was the kind of accidental culture-building that happens beyond the scope of advertising.
Old school breakers and MCs (like members of the Cold Crush Brothers) talk about how they lived their sneaker fantasies with relish by demonstrating their hilarious techniques of lovingly cleaning their fresh kicks with a toothbrush in order to keep them looking new for as long as possible. Examples of shoe lace accessorizing and comparisons to male peacocks are particularly on point.
The marketing side of things kicked into high gear in the Eighties when a series of massive events and a confluence of genuine media stars basically invented hip hop marketing: Run DMC's record "My Adidas" turned that shoe brand into a phenomenon among their fans. Just For Kicks posits this as the moment that hip hop turned from a labor of love into the massive industry it is today.
It's hard to believe that a song that does nothing but extol the quality of footwear was not a cynical bit of viral marketing but rather a sincere ode to their favorite shoes (as well as a positive response to critics who called Run DMC's habit of wearing sneakers with no laces "felon shoes") but regardless, what began as an endearing bit of musical homage did end up commercial. The documentary includes a little-seen video that Run DMC produced after the song hit the charts to lobby for a million dollar payday from Adidas. This put into motion the connection between products and rap music, something that is completely out of control today. Still, the pure energy and fun of the Run DMC track is illustrated nicely by a clever bit of animation by the filmmakers.
The other massive event to join street culture and shoe marketing was the timing of Nike's deal with then-rookie basketball player Michael Jordan. Nike, an also-ran in the sneaker market, signed the fresh-faced Jordan to his own sneaker line ("Air Jordan," of course) and hired hot young filmmaker Spike Lee to direct his commercials, complete with Lee's performance as Mars Blackmon, the character he played in his debut feature "She's Gotta Have It." The congregation of cultural factors in this marketing scheme is mind bogglingly complex: Sports and cinema, street and fashion, indie-cred and major ad bucks, hip-hop sensibility and slick production values. The Jordan/Lee pairing is probably one of the most significant ad campaigns in commercial history and Just For Kicks treats it like an atomic bomb going off in its subject matter.
The film also suggests that Lee's 1989 masterpiece Do The Right Thing was basically an ad for the Air Jordan, but that's overstating things. Lee was savvy enough to prominently feature the Nike shoe in the film (a move that surely had a payday) but the Buggin Out character's big sneaker scene (excerpted in Just For Kicks) was as much about the absurdity of sneaker fetishism as it was about the sneakers themselves. That it was also one of the film's classic set-pieces of racial disharmony is overlooked here.
Unfortunately the Run DMC and Jordan segments are pretty much it for storyline. After that it's just a question of more commercialism, more plugging of product in songs and more collector fetishism. While some of the interviewees are energetic and compelling (some of the more passionate sneaker lovers like Bonz Malone and La Haine director Mathieu Kassovitz make terrific subjects) there are boring segments as well. Damon Dash sucked the life out of Paper Chasers and he does it again here, droning on about how he never wears the same pair of sneakers twice and showing off his sneaker closets, which manage to be both extravagant and completely slovenly at the same time. Dash is the worst of current hip hop commercialism: Big ego and financial desires but without any character or spirit to back it up.
The rest of the documentary sort of plods along, through the label-whoring and boutique designing of the last few years (wow, G-Unit sneakers) but nothing matches the charm of the early adopters or the ground-breaking mix of art and commerce in the Run DMC and Jordan/Lee sequences. The last parts of the film only really bristle with energy when an individual interviewee gets excited over a tale of discovering vintage kicks in a dingy basement or far-flung store. It's telling that in this day of eBay, Malone says that if he orders rare kicks off the internet it's worthless to him: He needs to travel to the seller, even if it means flying overseas, since the hunt is so much a part of the excitement. Understandably it's the fans here who are interesting, and not the moguls.
The full-frame video is bright and colorful. Some vintage footage is worn, of course, but overall the video presentation is lively, clean and enjoyable.
The Dolby stereo soundtrack is simple and to the point. The music sounds good, with the bass packing a reasonable punch. The voices are mostly clear. removable subtitles are available, although the default subtitle tracks is recommended since Kassovitz's interviews are in French.
The menus deserve mention since their clean, simple design both mimics classic sneaker styling and just looks great. The extras consist of a series of six additional segments, including an ode to the late Jam Master Jay (DJ and style-originator for Run DMC) as well as additional interviews. There is also a collection of trailers for other hip hop themed DVD releases.
Just For Kicks does a good job turning unlikely subject matter into a watchable film. But the filmmakers' energy and enthusiasm, which enhances the inherently interesting segments, can only gloss over the story's lack of arc but so much. There isn't really enough to the hip hop plus sneakers equation to make a fully compelling feature. Still, anyone interested in the culture should give it a spin.