Beat Street (1984) / Drama-Musical

MPAA Rated: PG for language and some violence
Running time: 105 min.

Cast: Guy Davis, Rae Dawn Chong, Jon Chardiet, Leon W. Grant, Robert Taylor
Cameo: Jazzy Jay, Doug E. Fresh, Bernard Fowler, Melle Mel, Afrika Bambaataa, Kool Herc, Brenda Starr, Kool Moe Dee

Director: Stan Lathan
Screenplay: Andy Davis, David Gilbert, Paul Golding
Review published November 15, 2009

Producer Harry Belafonte's commercialized slice-of-life drama stars Guy Davis as Kenny 'Double K' Kirkland, a South Bronx hip-hop DJ with big dreams and Jon Chardiet as Ramon, a Puerto Rican graffiti artist who would rather tag trains than get a real job.  Rae Dawn Chong (American Flyers, Commando) is an upper class music student who sees something in Kenny's proficiency with turntablism to want him to assist with her presentation on breakdancing. 

Just as breakdancing had become a mainstream breakthrough, Beat Street had been beaten to the punch in the summer of 1984 by Breakin' just a month before, and the overexposure at the box office of having two similar films seemed to work more in Breakin's favor.  However, Beat Street is arguably the better of the two films, as it is a little harder edged (though still PG rated), and it respects its subject matter more as art than as a passing fad, much in a similar way that superior predecessor to them both, Wild Style, had done.  Much of the subject matter also spins off of the serious documentary on the era, Style Wars.

Nevertheless as respectful as the film is to hip-hop culture, the delivery still smacks of Hollywood interpretations of how the real youth of the Bronx live.  Although about the humble roots of hip hop and b-boyism, the makers of the film have a more grandiose spectacle for its subject matter in mind, featuring some manufactured melodramatic elements, culminating in a farfetched song-and-breakdance concert featuring Melle Mel and the Furious Five (recently broken up with Grandmaster Flash) and future Rolling Stones back-up vocalist Bernard Fowler's gospel chorus entertaining a packed hall of enthused aficionados.

Yet, for true old school hip-hop heads, there's still a great deal of nostalgia value in seeing such pioneering acts as Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Melle Mel, the Treacherous Three, Doug E. Fresh, Jazzy Jay, and the rest on the screen performing as no other film had captured.  It also features real-life breakdancing crews like the Rock Steady Crew and New York City Breakers performing some truly breathtaking dance moves that never get old to watch.  It effectively captures the imagination that is involved in DJing, which requires a deep knowledge of music even if it doesn't require knowing how to play an instrument.  Plus, it's rare to see any form of entertainment actually uphold what most consider blight, graffiti art, as something that has value and meaning to a culture that is often misunderstood (although, as presented here, it still seems a bit of a stretch).

It's too glitzy and theatrical in its execution to be fully embraced by the hip hop culture (although, it should be noted that the old school rap acts featured in the film were also glitzy and theatrical) it seeks to celebrate, and it spotlights a little too much commercial pop and R&B acts, but for the key aspects of the film, it's a worthwhile endeavor, with some great rap music and fantastic breakdancing.

 Qwipster's rating:

©2009 Vince Leo