One of only a handful of feature films directed by prolific television director Stan Lathan, 1984's Beat Street is set in and amongst the bombed out buildings of the South Bronx of the era. Here we meet Kenny 'Double K' Kirkland (Guy Davis), an up and coming DJ/rapper who is trying to make it in the music business. He lives at home with his mother, Cora (Mary Alice), and smart-mouthed younger brother Lee (Robert Kirkland). While Cora clearly loves her two sons, she's not so sure she approves about their interest in the local breakdancing and hip-hop scenes.
K's regular gig is working the mic and the turntables at an underground club where he hangs out with his friends, graffiti master Ramon (Jon Charidet) and his would be manager Chollie (Leon W. Grant) but soon he comes to the attention of the guy who books The Roxy, a much more high-profile club. As K starts to prepare for what could be his big break, he has an on again/off again romance with Tracy Carlson (Rae Dawn Chong), a high society girl from a nearby art college trying to put together a big stage production of her own. Friendships will be formed, dance wars will be waged, arrests will be made and before it's all over someone will die… but will K get his shot at the big time and win his lady's heart or is this all for nothing?
"This ain't New York, this the Bronx!"
Shot on location throughout mid-eighties New York City with a whole lot of footage shot during the bad old days in the South Bronx, there's a lot of earnest grit to the locales where all of this plays out. The Kirkland's live in a rundown tenement building, K DJ's in a club that the local kids have built out of an abandoned building and later they fashion an apartment above it for Ramon to live in with his girlfriend and their newborn. The subway stations and trains that run through them are covered in graffiti murals and tags and the streets look tough, sometimes dangerous. This never feels manufactured, because it isn't.
At the same time, the very fact that the movie was made when and where it was made means there's plenty of nostalgia at play here. This is definitely an ‘eighties movie' through and through, the music and fashions and slang all scream it at you from the screen. This'll provide some comedy to the film, both intentional an unintentional, highlighted by a crazy scene that takes place at one of the clubs where a booze swigging Santa Clause raps back and forth with two ‘ghetto kids' who aren't happy with their presents (look for Kool Moe Dee to pop up here as Santa himself). It's these moments, these odd glimpse into hip-hop just as it was breaking into the mainstream and long before it was as common as it is today, that make Beat Street interesting. If it's a time capsule film, so be it, particularly when once you open that time capsule you not only get some killer footage of the famous Rock Steady Crew but you also get snippets of music from Melle Mel And The Furious Five, Doug E. Fresh, M.C. Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Tina B. and plenty more NYC based acts of the time. This overshadows some of the film's camp value and gives it some legitimate historical and cultural significance.
Performance wise, the cast is nothing if not likeable. Guy Davis makes for a fine lead here. His Double K is always trying to do the right thing and if he gets frustrated with his friends and his girlfriend, and yeah, even his mom from time to time, you at least understand why. Davis plays the part just fine and does well in the rapping/DJ scenes too. Rae Dawn Chong isn't as interesting a character, she's the rich girl who falls for the bad boy which is a cliché that's been done plenty of times before, but she's cute and her character is just genuinely nice. Robert Kirkland steals a few scenes as the kid who just wants to dance, the scene where gets locked up by the cops for breakin' in the subway station and his mom comes to bail him out is a standout moment in the film. Jon Charidet and Leon W. Grant in their supporting roles are also solid.
The movie is far more interesting as a snapshot of a movement, a look at a specific time and place where something big was happening, rather than as a narrative itself (the story is predictable to a fault) but there's enough going on here that Beat Street remains engaging and entertaining throughout. In short, it's a lot of fun.The Blu-ray:
Beat Street arrives on Blu-ray from Olive Films line framed at 1.85.1 widescreen in a perfectly nice looking high definition AVC encoded transfer. Detail is never reference quality but it's fine, definitely a few notches up from what DVD could provide and typically pretty solid. Colors come across quite nicely, Ramo's graffiti is nice and colorful looking as are the different garish costumes on display. There's a bit of minor print damage evident throughout the whole movie and there and some of the darker interior shots look noisier than the rest of the film but there's no evidence of noise reduction nor are there any compression artifact problems. This transfer won't floor you but it looks alright.Sound:
The only audio option for the feature is an English language DTS-HD 2.0 Mono track. Limited in range, the track is nevertheless of decent enough quality and the music does sound really good here. The more action intensive scenes like the dance off in the subway station that the cops break up aren't as engaging as you might want it to be but clarity is fine. Dialogue perfectly discernable and the track is free of any hiss or distortion. No alternate language options or subtitles have been provided.Extras:
The only extra on the disc is the film's original theatrical trailer, though static menus and chapter selection are also provided.Final Thoughts:
Beat Street is absolutely a product of its time but it remains a pretty enjoyable watch. We get a colorful cast of characters, a good mix of humor and drama, plenty of crazy dancing, some great music and a lot of fantastic early eighties location footage shot in the Bronx and upper Manhattan. Olive's Blu-ray release is disappointingly light one extras but it looks and sounds decent enough. This one is a lot of run. Recommended.