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.
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.
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.
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.