-->
Film

Louder Than a Bomb

In Louder Than a Bomb, the annual poetry slam in Chicago provides a structure, a deadline and a stage, a gathering of artists who inspire one another.


Louder Than a Bomb

Director: Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel
Cast: Kevin Coval, Adam Gottlieb, Elizabeth Graf, Kevin Harris, John Hood, Lamar Jorden, Peter Kahn, Jésus Lark, Nate Marshall, She'Kira McKnight, Preye Porri, James Sloan, Charles Smith, Robbie Q. Telfer, Nova Venerable
Rated: NR
Studio: Oprah Winfrey Network
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-05-18 (IFC Center)
Website
Trailer
I wanted them to learn that the world is bigger than a poetry slam.

-- Nate Marshall

"We're really not known for winning anything except sports, so we have to fight for everything we earn." Lamar Jordan lives in Chicago. His sense of context, his self-awareness, is hard-won and ongoing. A young man in process, Lamar introduces himself in Louder Than a Bomb using his nickname, "The Truth," and then tells it. "When I was growing up," says this 19-year-old, "I was a bit of a troublemaker and I did some things I regret. I like damaged a lot of things in the house, but my father never cried about that. When I got arrested, my father didn’t cry about that. The first time I made my father cry was the first time he heard me perform poetry."

Lamar's story, at once so personal and so resonant, shapes the poems he writes and performs. A member of Steinmetz High School's slam poetry team, in 2008, he's both proud and apprehensive. The year before, when the Steinmenauts first competed at the Louder Than a Bomb slam -- the city's largest, featuring teams from 60 high schools -- they surprised nearly everyone by winning the championship. Now, they hope to repeat, but at the same time, they mean to keep a perspective.

All the contestants are well aware of the contradiction in what they do. Though poems are immeasurable, they are also subject to judgments -- as the documentary shows repeatedly, each performance earns points, like Olympic dives, cards held up by judges numbered one through 10. "It's an outrageous thing, it's a stupid thing, giving scores and numbers to poems," admits Kevin Coval, LTAB's co-founder. "But then in the moment where it actually affects a team that maybe should have won, you're like, 'What are we doing? Really, what are we doing?'"

What they're doing is complicated, as you might guess. While competitors say more than once at LTAB, "The point is not the point, the point is the poetry," they also do compete, seriously and passionately. (The competition calls for four solo performances and a team performance.) Even as scores might seem unfair or even "stupid," as a concept, they do provide a kind of structure, a deadline and a stage, a gathering of artists who motivate and thrill one another. As they prepare for LTAB, the teams serve as alternate families. Steinmetz's Coach John Hood insists, "We try to instill that in every kid, that they're part of something even if they don’t perform. That's okay, because we need everybody we can get, because we're all we've got."

Louder Than a Bomb underlines this idea, showing how teams offer support and refuge, and also become occasional sources of tension. Opening in May at New York's IFC Center and soon airing on the Oprah Winfrey Network, the film offers a series of storylines. As in other recent competition documentaries (say, Mad Hot Ballroom, Rize, Resolved), these are organized around a few individuals, charismatic and representative. Like Lamar's, his rivals' stories are inspiring, instances of obstacles overcome. Nate Marshall from Whitney Young Magnet High School South Side remembers that both his parents were addicts (his mother, now clean, marvels at his skills: "When I saw him on stage, I was like, 'Wow, is that my child? The quiet one?'") As brilliant as his work may be, Nate puts his energy into helping younger team members. "Would it be cool to win slam?" he asks. "Hell, yeah. But if I don’t, I'll probably just be like the Dan Marino of slam. Dan Marino's a cool guy."

Nate's combination of pride and humility seems very different from Nova Venerable's intensity. A student at Oak Park/River Forest High School, she introduces herself by saying, "I was really angry all the time, I used to try to fight people every day, I used to yell at people, choke people stab at people with pencils." Poetry gave her a constructive outlet, she says, a way to express herself and feel rewarded for it. "What she writes about is hardcore, raw stuff, and when she says it, she gets to that place," says her coach, Peter Kahn, "You're there with her." Indeed, as she performs her poems about her father, now absent, who was an addict ("I fell into a caregiver role," she explains), and her younger brother Cody, who has Fragile X syndrome (in his case, producing Type One diabetes, autism, and seizures), she creates vivid, profound images. She brings remarkable poise and ferocity to her performances. "When I started writing," she says, "Everything that I was holding inside that came out was such a big relief, I didn’t have to worry too much about feelings of guilt, I didn’t have to worry about being upset. My life just kind of seemed to fit when I started writing."

As Nova imagines herself teaching high school someday (math or English, or maybe both), she also looks forward to having a "normal," stable life, a marriage and children, but not until she's 26. Her sense of what might be normal is shaped by what she doesn’t have. Adam Gottlieb, from Northside College Prep, has a different gauge. Wholly supported by his parents ("Well, you know there's a tremendous job market for slam poets," his dad laughs), Adam is at once supremely confident and conscious ("I've always had privilege"). He loves the slam community, the model it provides for a "better world." Describing LTAB, he turns giddy, bouncing just a little on his bed as he speaks: "If you're somewhere else in the first week of March, you're in the wrong place. Louder Than a Bomb is the coolest place to be on the planet."

The film shows just how cool, through the participants' investments, their hard work, and the changing lives. The slams are a means more than an end, a means of "learning about new people and understanding new people and really feeling inspired by people who are very different than you," as Adam puts it. "I would like to say that that's changing the world. And if not, it's definitely coming much, much closer."

This ideal is visible at LTAB. After months of preparation -- and some drama -- the competition comprises the film's lengthy closing sequence, with a montage of presentations, scoreboards, and reaction shots. As regular as this structure may be, the performances are terrific. And these are the point.

8
Music

The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less
Music

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

Wars of attrition are a matter of stamina, of who has the most tools with which to keep fighting. A surprising common tool in this collection? Humor.

The name of the game is "normal or abnormal". Here's how you play: When some exceedingly shocking political news pops up on your radar, turn to the person next to you, read them the headline and ask, "is this normal or abnormal?" If you want to up the stakes, drink a shot every time the answer is abnormal. If that's too many shots, alter the rules so that you drink only when things are normal—which is basically never, these days. Hilarious, right?

Keep reading... Show less
9
Music

The Dear Hunter: All Is As All Should Be EP

Jordan Blum
Publicity photo via Bandcamp

Although All Is As All Should Be is a tad too brief to match its precursors, it's still a masterful blend of songwriting, arrangements, and singing that satisfies the Dear Hunter anticipation.

The Dear Hunter is undoubtedly one of the best—and consequently, most egregiously underappreciated—bands of the last decade or so. Aside from 2013's Migrant LP, every one of their major releases featured an ambitious hook; for example, 2011's The Color Spectrum presented nine EPs (consisting of four songs each) that individually represented a different sonic tone (in order: Black, Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet, and White), whereas the five-part (so far) Act saga, with its genre-shifting arrangements, superlative songwriting, narrative complexity, and extraordinary conceptual continuity, is a cumulative work of genius, plain and simple.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image