A lot of different apparati to make this happen, you know: multiple takes with the routine, multiple cameras, multiple angles. So it was a challenge to get this all down… I told ’em, even if your routine wasn’t perfect, as long as you guys were having fun and you’re striking those poses hard, we’re gonna be fine.
— Malcolm D. Lee, commentary track, Roll Bounce
“Teenage boys alone in Chicago for the summer spells trouble, especially with a lot of pretty extras around,” says Malcolm Lee, commenting for the DVD of his film, Roll Bounce. “I did a lot of yelling on this set because, like I said, they’re young boys and their hormones are flying around. It was the first time I had to work with predominantly young actors.” According to Lee, the shoot was energetic, great fun, and hectic, as well as a little rambunctious. Playing dad to the cast, the director turned avuncular, not a stretch exactly, but not something he’s used to either. This being the man who made The Best Man and Undercover Brother, you know, more adult fare.
Set in and around skating rinks and scored with the sort of vintage music that makes everyone smile, Lee’s movie is a nostalgic and sweet look-back at the summer of ’78. Bow Wow plays X (short for Xavier), designated coming-of-ager, in a tight little ‘fro and cute skinny pants. Long-limbed and charming, X is introduced as he’s struggling to come to terms with the recent death of his mother. This involves some predictable conflicts with his dad Curtis (Chi McBride), who’s having his own troubles (he’s lost his job as well as his beloved wife), and the major metaphor of disco roller skating.
The film’s opening scene is set in X’s favorite neighborhood rink, where he and his buddies — Mixed Mike (Khleo Thomas), Naps (Rick Gonzalez), Boo (Marcus T. Paulk), and Junior (Brandon T. Jackson) — bounce about and smile like crazy. When the rink closes, they’re forced to seek their delights across town at Sweetwater Rink. The problem this move brings isn’t just an extra bus ride (no small issue when X is on a strict curfew at home), but also that they’re no longer the big fish in their roller-skating pond. Lee points out as well the class differences between the “sides” of town: “We really wanted to show a contrast between this rink and this side of town as opposed to when they get to the Sweetwater side.” The champion Sweetwater squad sports flamboyant costumes, white jumpsuits and sequins; their leader, hard-abbed Sweetness (Wesley Jonathan, whom Lee describes as “a great-looking guy and is able to just pull off that arrogance without it being offensive”), is beloved by his fans (who include a bevy of short-shortsed, silent girls with flipped hairdos) and utterly intimidating and self-loving. In a word, he’s the “baddest mo-fo to ever put on a pair skates — he’s got his own theme song like Baretta.” When the annual contest is announced, X and crew decide to practice up to take on the snooty, prima donna champions.
As Lee says, the rink “really looks nothing like” what you see on screen. “It was basically a warehouse type setting.” Lee talks about the design and production a lot, appearing on three tracks for the DVD — solo; with Bow Wow (on McBride, Lee says, “I know one of the things he told you was ‘Use your ears'”) and Mike Epps (who plays a chatty garbage collector); and with writer Norman Vance Jr. and producer Robert Teitel. These last discuss their childhoods (“You guys get into any rumbles?”) and the shoot (“Sound stage with a tin roof: not recommended, people; aspiring filmmakers, don’t ever shoot there!”). Lee says of Bow Wow, “The kid has an instant charisma,” and he’s right. As X, it’s hard to take your eyes off him: he’s definitely got the Will Smith thing going on.
Still, baby boy has issues, including his desire to impress the perfect girl, Naomi (Meagan Good), who only shows up at Sweetwater to inspire X to greatness (“Where were these chicks when I was growing up?” asks Lee, while he, Vance, and Teitel extol Good’s many virtues). The boys come to find that Sweetness turns all heads down at the rink (Lee recalls his own youth, losing girls to show-offs, when “light-skinned brothers was the top!”), and so they start practicing their routines to music by Kool & The Gang, Bill Withers, Chic, the Bee Gees, and Donna Summer.
The movie includes plentiful other references to its era, from What’s Happening!!, Kool-Aid, The Mod Squad, and the Fonz to Jordache Jeans and YooHoo. Still, the most striking emblems of the era are the wigs, especially lively atop the heads of hammy Nick Cannon (as playboy skate-dispenser Bernard) and Wayne Brady (as the enthusiastic DJ for the final skate-off).
When he’s not at the rink, X is clashing with dad back home. Dad argues that skating is a waste of time and son notices dad stepping out. That is, he tentatively dons his best patterned shirt (and puts on some “Brute, by Fabergé!” as Lee and Vance remember it) to go to a party where he flirts with vavoomy new neighbor Vivian (Kellita Smith). As Curtis prepares for his evening, X notes with disdain his cologne and, of course, his imminent betrayal of mom’s precious memory. The film’s treatment of this father-son tension ranges from clichéd to affecting (this last thanks to the performers’ earnest efforts), but leads to the requisite explosion and tearful, mutually forgiving embrace.
The father-son drama (Bow Wow recalls working with McBride in a couple of emotional scenes: “I just kept my eyes on him, man”) unfolds parallel to X’s own girl-distractions. As warm-up, he makes friends with Vivian’s daughter Tori (always engaging Jurnee Smollett), all awkward angles and long limbs as she learns to skate and gets pelted by immature boys’ water balloons. Trying to keep up with the boys, she gives back as good as she gets when they make fun of her “heavy metal” mouth full of braces (“You need to stop chewing on them yellow crayons,” she retorts, earning groans and cheers).
While Roll Bounce means to be feel-good, it takes a formulaic route to that end. Will X make it right with Naomi? Will he and dad reconcile? Will Tori be revealed as a beauty when she loses her braces? And oh my goodness, will the wisecracking, booty-ogling garbage collectors (Epps and Charlie Murphy) find another outlet for their energies?