Sunday 30 November 2008

Beat Street (1984)

This one had every indication that it was going to be truly awful, I mean down at the level of late Bela Lugosi awful. As it turns out, it isn't quite that bad, but it's not far off. It's a hip hop film from 1984 featuring precisely one actor I've heard of: Rae Dawn Chong. When it begins, we find ourselves in the Bronx with a young wannabe DJ, Kenny Kirkland (unimaginatively known as Double K) and his token white boy homie (called Ramon, but he looks like Jim Carrey) putting on a show in a burned out building for the whitest black kids you've ever seen, in clothing that's as out of place in that locale as most of the rest of what we see.

This is no ghetto, though we're set up to believe that it is. Double K may be a class below most of the rest of the characters we meet, but he's not ghetto class. There are a bunch of locks on Double K's door but they don't stay locked, even though mama's already lost one son out there. He has a serious amount of hardware to play with in his room and al these breakdancers have more money invested in their clothes than in their apartments. The trains are clean, tagged admittedly but they're still clean. Best of all, Ramon has a kid, with some Italian girl called Carmen, but it's black! Young Julian is a frizzy haired black baby, but his alleged parents are both as white as I am, and given that Rae Dawn Chong is notably more black than I am that's saying something.

At least Double K's little brother Lee has some serious talent as a breakdancer, and after a dance off at the Roxy he gets approached by Tracy Carlson, who is some sort of rich college student doing performing arts work: composing, choreography or some such. Of course the rich girl falls for the poor boy and vice versa, so we get a romance angle to go along with the ghetto boy making good. In fact we have a few angles, many of which feature Ramon instead of Double K: there's Ramon trying to get over to his dad that he's an graffiti artist not a crook, Ramon and Carmen trying to find a life together, Ramon searching for a white A train like it was Moby Dick, Ramon painting burns while some punk called Spit just tags his name over the top of his art.

There's a lot of flavour here and I did make it through, it holding a lot less embarrassment for me than for my lass who lived through this era and saw much of it for real. She was even more amazed than I was at the lack of authenticity, given that there are some major performing names playing themselves. With people like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and Afrika Bambaataa in the film, you'd expect authenticity, but the only black people seem to be the ones on stages performing. The audiences all seem to be white. Even the music is plastic and safe, perhaps a Hollywood requirement but not one that stands up to posterity. This is 1984, so I'm not expecting gangsta culture, but I was expecting something a little more gritty than the Santa Rap.

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