Beat Street (1984)

17Mar10

“This ain’t New York, this the Bronx!” – Double K

A mixture of genuine, novice acting and weak story lines never detracts from the film’s groundbreaking, authentic soundtrack nor the original look and attitude that “Beat Street” presents: hip hop in it’s early form. For many, it was their first experience with this gritty scene on the streets of New York, a culture shock soon to be embraced by the suburbs. For those already immersed, it gave a voice for hip hop on a much larger scale. Many factors have influenced hip hop from a sideshow sub culture into the mainstream juggernaut that it is today and this film is as good a starting point as any.

Following the exploits of a young group of working class friends in the South Bronx trying to make a name for themselves, they each represent a small niche that summarizes the hip hop experience.  Kenny Kirkland “Double K” (Guy Davis) leads the way, an ambitious DJ looking for his big break, his good friend and manager Chollie (Leon W. Grant) getting him gigs at the hottest clubs to promote his skills. Kenny’s younger brother, Lee, (Robert Taylor) is a rising break dancing star with the b-boy crew New York City Breakers, tagging along on Kenny’s gigs. Kenny’s best friend Ramon (Jon Chardiet) is a graffiti artist artfully brandishing subway cars.

Showcasing his skills at the prominent night club The Roxy, Kenny makes an impression with everyone and his peers while Lee is making his own mark that same night. Hanging with his b boy crew, they notice their rivals the Rock Steady Crew (playing themselves) lingering around. Both sides gather and a circle forms which then erupts into one of the earliest recorded and best break dancing battles of all time, having real life breakers perform jaw dropping moves with Crazy Legs closing it out.

Tracy Carlson (Rae Dawn Chong), an aspiring music student and composer, is impressed with Lee’s performance and asks him to stop by her school so they can record him for a television show. Kenny and his friends join him and when they find out Lee won’t receive credit for his performance, destroy the tape and leave. Tracy stops by Kenny’s home to apologize and then ensues a romance between the two, each from different world’s socially, but bonding over their interest in music.

Meanwhile, Ramon is struggling to financially support his family, ignoring the pleas from his father to get a “real job”, his focus only with his graffiti work. He finally succumbs, getting a day job and moving out of his wife’s parents home. Later, Kenny and Ramon notice a white subway train and plan to tag it. That night while working on it, they catch graffiti defacer “Spit” ruining their work on the other side. Chasing him down, Ramon tangles with him on the tracks and both are electrocuted on the third rail. The crew is devastated but Kenny decides it’s best they perform their scheduled NYE show at the Roxy, dedicating the performance to Ramon and their friendship.

The main characters bring an authentic “street” feel to their acting, seemingly playing themselves, most of them already performing artists in music or art in New York. They are able to bring credibility to their roles with an earnestness that gives them “street cred”, never bordering on the absurd. Also adding to the film’s realism, besides including real artists, is having it shot on location in New York City and its outlying boroughs.

The story itself is marginally interesting, easily overshadowed by the hip hop stars portraying themselves, such as Grand Master Melle Mel and the Furious Five, Afrika Bambaataa, Doug E. Fresh, Rock Steady Crew, NYC Breakers, and Kool Herc. Each were pioneers, given moments to shine and showcase their skills. The impact from their performances have greatly influenced hip hop, the fans of the film becoming the new leaders. The strength of the film isn’t necessarily its plot or even the characters, but capturing the hip hop innovators creating a movement still being felt today.

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