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Style Wars is the original Exit Through The Gift Shop. Before graffiti was reappropriated as "street art" after white people started showing an interest in it, New York City graffiti writers were "bombing", tagging subway cars with art that would eventually become very influential during the following decades.
Despite the many objections of the admittedly square public and the NYC government's futile efforts into putting a stop to what they labeled "Destructive vandalism", these teenage kids, who were as young as fourteen at the time, used their energy and creativity to turn the entire city into their personal canvas. So why were they considered public enemy number one? One of the graffiti writers even complains that while real criminals rob and kill commuters on the subway, MTA uses their money and energy into shutting them down.
Originally produced as a TV piece for PBS in 1982, Tony Silver's cult documentary focuses on the lives of a group of graffiti artists as they bomb subway cars and street corners. Even though it definitely contains a distinct, energetic style and one of the best 80s rap soundtracks, the full enjoyment of Style Wars depends on the knowledge that it was initially constructed for PBS.
Therefore, it contains the typical objective approach and dry narration of similar TV docs of the era, giving a considerable amount of screen time to the counter-graffiti argument and the points-of-view of authority figures as high up as then-NYC mayor Ed Koch (The most amusing moment in the film comes when Koch screws up his own anti-graffiti slogan during a press meeting), even though it becomes fairly obvious what Silver thinks about these authority figures when he uses Wagner as background music whenever they appear on screen.
The documentary first started as an exploration of the break dancing scene in New York. When the producers realized they didn't have enough material to fill the proposed running time, they began following graffiti writers and eventually decided their stories were more interesting. There's still some footage of break dancing in the final film, which honestly create some of its more forgettable moments.
Style Wars was shot on 16mm and presented in the 4:3 aspect ratio, which was appropriate for TVs at the time. It was meticulously restored after a successful Kickstarter campaign and looks as beautiful and clean as it possibly can on this 1080p presentation. It still suffers from a couple of scratches here and there but in all honesty, the raw look of the film also gives it its soul.
Two audio tracks are offered, both in DTS-HD, in 5.1 surround and 2.0 stereo. The surround track really comes to life when any of the groundbreaking rap tracks of the era kick in. Otherwise, the tinny narration as well as the interviews comes off clean through the front speakers. The stereo track should offer a perfect viewing experience on TV.
Even though the feature barely clocks in at 70 minutes, Style Wars offers a ton of extras that should keep fans entertained and informed for hours.
In Memoriam: A 45-second clip consisting of outtake footage of director Tony Silver, who passed away in 2008.
Outtakes: 30 minutes of deleted interviews seamlessly edited together with the help of tons of b-roll footage. Very informative stuff can be found here.
B-boy Showcase: An 8-minute mini-documentary focusing on the break dancing scene. If you didn't think there was enough break dancing in the feature, this one's for you.
In The Cutting Room: A video documentary that intercuts raw footage of the film's editing process with filmmaker interviews about the decisions they made while putting the whole thing together. Even though the technology behind documentary editing has changed considerably, this is an important featurette for anyone interesting in editing.
Audio Commentary by Tony Silver and Producer Henry Chalfant: This is an informative commentary that focuses on the process of putting the film together, as well as some interesting tidbits about the subjects, such as what some of the graffiti writers turned out to be when they grew up.
As a feature documentary, Style Wars obviously lacks the pizzazz of docs about similar subject matter produced during the years following its release, but its influence on raw documentaries about street life, as well as the graffiti and hip hop culture is undeniable. For everyone interested in the subject, it's an important historical document that deserves a look, or even a purchase.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com