For most people, graffiti is not art; it's a crime that stands out like a deep bruise, covering the city's beauty. And once a piece of graffiti appears on a wall or subway car, it seems to spread like a virus, with new blemishes appearing overnight. For a select few, however, graffiti is not only an art form, but a way of life, particularly for certain kids in New York during the 1970s and early 80s.
Style Wars documents this emerging hip hop subculture in the streets of New York during this time period. And although the documentary won't sway any nonbelievers into believing graffiti is art, it does shed light into the reasons behind the phenomenon.
The reasons are simply enough: Kids want their name's known. What better way to make this happen then spraying their names on subway cars? These cars travel all over the city, transporting millions of people every day. Over time, the "writers" grew more artistic, and began to add color, shapes, and depth to their designs. So in order to be king, these kids no longer had to simply get their name on the most cars, but they also had to do it with the most style.
As graffiti became the hip hop culture's written word and rap became the spoken word, break dancing became another form of expression. It's the inclusion of b-boy dancers that Style Wars takes a misstep. The documentary focuses most of its time on the graffiti artists, while it doesn't focus enough on the dancing (it doesn't spare any time for rap). I would have rather seen a film on strictly the "bombing" of subway cars or a film that focused on each aspect of hip hop. As it is, the dancing sections all but screamed out for more detail.
The film also doesn't do a great shop showing the other side of the coin. It does feature interviews with law enforcement officials and the occasional random person off the street, but it in no way tries to paint the kids as hoodlums or criminals. Surprisingly, this was a plus. I already knew spraying paint on a public wall is a crime. But what I didn't know is why the kids felt compelled to do it. This documentary explains that very thing.
I have to admit, I never understood the need for graffiti. After watching this film, I still don't "get" it. But I do understand the mindset of the kids who do it. It's their form of expression. No matter the rights or wrongs of graffiti, these kids were passionate. They had something they loved, and it actually brought them together as a small, artistic community. Style Wars shines light on this community in a very effective and compelling way. Even after 20 years, this film is a great snapshot of urban youth.
Plexifilm presents Style Wars in it's original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Without a doubt, the image looks old. There are scratches and mosquito noise throughout the feature. The image, which is color and b/w, is rather soft and grainy throughout, and the colors appear skewed at least slightly. Shadow detail is pretty minimal, too.
With that said, I must point out that the image suits this documentary. The grainy look, although unintentional, gives the picture a more gritty feel. It makes it more real. Although my star rating reflects the facts of the image's appearance, some of the "negatives" associated with the transfer are actually a boon, not a detriment.
Style Wars is presented in a remastered 5.1 Dolby Digital track, as well as a 2.0 track. The 2.0 track is actually better for most of the film because the ambiance noise found on the 5.1 track actually detracts from the people's voices. Being an interview heavy film, that's not good. However, the 5.1 track definitely kicks the music into high gear. With classic tracks from Grandmaster Flash and the Treacherous Three (to name a couple), this is the only way to listen to this documentary. Bass is solid and the beats truly pound.
English subtitles for the hearing impaired are also included.
THE BONUS FEATURES
This DVD boasts over three hours of bonus features, and for the most part, these features are at least decent. Disc one, of course, features the screen-specific commentary by director-producer Tony Scott and producer Henry Chalfant. For anyone interested in a more in-depth look at the beginnings of graffiti, look no further than these two guys. After only a few minutes of listening to them, it's readily apparent they knew these kids and considered them friends. Although the commentary is a bit dry at times, it does give more detail about the lives of these kids and about the shooting of the film.
The first disc also includes outtake footage that definately needed to be cut from the finished film, and two short but interesting interviews with Scott/Chalfant and the film's editors, Victor Kanefsky and Sam Pollard.
The second disc features an artist's archive and "Destroy All Lines", a 30 minute loop showing over 200 tagged and burned subway cars. This feature was cool at first, but 30 minutes is a lot of subway cars, and it got boring pretty fast. This feature, as well as the others on disc two, could have been better with music, but contrary to what the back cover states, these photo montages are presented without sound.
Perhaps the coolest bonus in this set are the artist interviews. In 2002, many of the subjects who appear in the film discuss life after graffiti (if they actually gave it up) and how graffiti effected them. In many cases, the artists go back to their old stomping grounds. These interviews were very good and very refreshing; a sort of before and after shot. Why don't more documentaries go this route?
Although a little one-sided, Style Wars does a great job letting viewers into the mind of a graffiti artist. It's not as powerful as it was in 1983, most assuredly, but it's a great snapshot of urban life during the beginnings of the hip hop era. For those who are interested in the subject, I highly recommend this DVD. For others, at least those with an open mind, it's worth a rental.