Back when hip-hop music was simply seen as a passing fad and had not entirely developed into the culture it has become today, films like Beat Street were capitalizing on the music’s growing popularity. More than 30 years since its initial release, Beat Street (1984) is now viewed as something of a relic for an ’80s cultural time capsule. It’s difficult to judge a film like this, since it captured hip-hop primarily during its developing stages (though to be fair, hip-hop is constantly developing and evolving), but there is an honesty to Beat Street’s depiction of youth finding themselves through a burgeoning subculture. The film makes a point of how much an artistic movement can shape and define an individual without sliding into mawkish sentimentalism.
Kenny (Guy Davis), an aspiring club DJ who regularly hosts underground events, lives with his younger brother Lee (Robert Taylor), a skilled breakdancer, and his overworked mother (Mary Alice Smith) in their South Bronx apartment. Much of Kenny’s time is spent hanging out with his buddies, Chollie (Leon W. Grant), a wannabe promoter and “Ramo” (Jon Chardiet), a stealthy graffiti artist who’s already made quite a name for himself all over the city. This group of friends are thirsty for bigger experiences that stretch beyond the poverty they know.
One night at a club where Kenny is working a DJ gig, Tracy (Rae Dawn Chong) walks in with her girlfriends to scope the place and check the dancers out. It turns out that Tracy is a composer for dance troupes and is looking for something fresh she can use for a new theatrical production she is working on. Spotting Lee during a showdown he is having with a rival gang of breakdancers, Tracy immediately gets the bright idea that breakdancing is precisely the fresh new element she needs for her production. She offers Lee a chance to come by the theatre to demonstrate his moves in front of the dance troupe. Kenny accompanies his brother to the theatre where he meets Tracy. He is not entirely sure he can trust Tracy though he is intrigued by her and, thus, a difficult romance between the two blooms.
Firstly, it should be understood that much of the human drama that unfolds in the story is situated within the construct of a musical. That’s not to say that every five minutes people are bursting into song and dance. Instead, music is a constant backdrop, one that informs much of the action in the film. Depending on how you feel about musicals, this is either blessing or curse. It should be said, however, that the dance sequences are stunningly conceived and performed.
If there was any question of the validity of breakdancing as an art form, you only need to witness the showdowns between the dancers in the clubs and subway stations. The way Beat Street presents this particular phenomenon of hip-hop culture is undeniably impressive; it’s not difficult to understand why a studio executive would greenlight a film project on street dancers — there’s a mathematical beauty and precision with which these breakdancers execute their moves. All dance sequences brim with high energy and are a joy to watch.
This, however, brings up the flipside to this particular element in the film. Most of the drama occurring in the story (including Kenny’s romance with Tracy and the death of a close friend) paves the way for these dance scenes. That is to say, much of the storyline is subservient to the staged dance numbers, with one emotional moment precipitating a musical number. While it doesn’t diminish the characters themselves in any way, it somewhat removes them from the emotional drama. It’s best, then, to approach Beat Street as a story of a subcultural movement in America, a slice of urban life reframed through a pop culture perspective.
Olive Films delivers a strong transfer of the film, a plus given that the best thing about this film (apart from the spectacular dance segments) is the brilliant use of color. There are many scenes that show off the wonderfully gorgeous graffiti artwork and Olive Films’ transfer wholly presents these colors boldly and radiantly. Sound and dialogue come through nicely; in certain club scenes the music can override just a little bit of the dialogue, but it isn’t much of a distraction since it’s a rare occurrence in the film. Unfortunately, there are no extras available on the disc.
Beat Street also has the notable honor of representing the Bronx and various parts of New York during the days before the restoration (and eventual gentrification of certain areas). For those who love taking ganders at the gritty New York of yore, Beat Street provides those historical thrills. And, of course, as a document of the early days of hip-hop, Beat Street still holds its own as one of the films to have captured hip-hop culture in its most transitional phase. If you need proof, check out the comically charming number performed by one of hip-hop’s most underrated acts, Treacherous Three, who have since passed into legend; you have to admire any musical number that has the gumption to cross vaudeville with rap.