Beat Street Review
Subway trains, graffiti and a ghetto blaster the size of a small car pounding out beats. The LEDs above its tape deck sit stubbornly in the red. Kids in sneakers unroll a sheet of linoleum on a street breakdancing as a sidewalk Santa pumps up the crowd to a beatbox. Electric cables are draped between brownstones and the powerlines outside to host a party in which two turntables, a microphone and Kenny (Guy Davis) are enough to get the party started. Call me partisan on the matter of Beat Street but that's the kind of exciting that you just don't get with four kids from Suffolk strumming their guitars and namechecking The Smiths. And when those beats and rhymes are the sound of 1984, that's exciting! Afrika Bambaataa, Sha Rock, Lisa Lee and Debbie D, Arthur Baker, The Treacherous Three and the funk of Grandmaster Melle Mel & the Furious Five! And a breakdancing battle between the New York City Breakers and the Rock Steady Crew battle on the dancefloor of the Roxy. I wore a grin as wide as the New York City harbour throughout Beat Street. It's great fun!
How innocent it all is, though. The music is less politicised than it would later become - Public Enemy would only release Yo! Bum Rush The Show in 1987 - while the guns, gold and glamour of later years, were so far removed from the hand-to-mouth living of early hip-hop that no one, least of all those scraping tape, vinyl and nights on the decks out of nothing. But on such flimsy foundations were built a revolution. It began about nothing. Much of the music wasn't even about anything, other than rap and hip-hop. Like those early rock'n'roll songs (and movies), the songs reference little but the music itself. Beat Street Breakdown, Baptise the Beat, Breaker's Revenge, Santas' Rap and Phony 4 MCs are titles typical of the movie while the rhymes fall heavily on the beat. The words that rushed over the beats in Def Jam's earliest releases were yet to come. But so too was the ability to turn a penny out of this. This was music made for no more reason than to get the sounds out there.
It's a freezing cold winter in New York city. Brothers Kenny (Guy Davis) and Lee (Robert Taylor) are trying to turn a dime. Lee dances in nightclubs while Kenny is looking for a DJing spot anywhere in New York. Their friend Ramon (Jon Chardiet) graffitis the A-trains on the subways at night while Chollie (Leon W Grant) hustles their talents as manager. But life outside is catching up with them. Their grandmother urges them to think beyond hip-hop and to get jobs but they won't hear of it. Their nights are spent on the street and in parties while they sleep through their mornings in bed. The snow still falls outside and Christmas is coming.
Their fortunes seem to be taking a turn when Lee is noticed by college student Tracy (Rae Dawn Chong). They show up at her university thinking that Lee may get a part in the show but he's means nothing to them beyond a break in their rehearsals. Kenny calls them, saying, "Y'all checking him out like he's some little freak...y'all be showing people how you down with breakin' but that's bullshit cos you ain't down with nuthin'" Kenny gets a gig at the Burning Spear and his music begins to take him somewhere but even as he begins dating Tracy, he refuses her offer of studio time at the college, telling her that she's no better than a, "missionary who has found her savages!" Meanwhile, the clean white subway cars of the A-trains catch Ramon's eyes but his father calls his son out as a bum who wastes his talents while feeling guilty that he can't look after his kid. Meanwhile, Ramon sees the tag Spit over the work of others and, in a railway siding, sees figure with a spraycan taking an interest in his own graffiti.
Beat Street wasn't the first movie to celebrate breakdancing and hip-hop. Breakin' came before it and did so from the west coast of the US but like hip-hop itself, the east coast couldn't let that challenge slip by without answering it. And if you're at all like me, you'll believe, regardless of the facts, that hip-hop's giant steps were taken by New York's Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Melle Mel before the city's Def Jam, the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy revolutionised hip-hop. Los Angeles was playing catch-up thereafter and no matter that Breakin' got there beforehand, it's Beat Street that matters. In look and in style, Beat Street is all New York. The sunshine of Breakin' has been replaced by snow, grey skies and the screech of the subway trains on the rails. But what's best about it is that how fresh and new the music sounds. It's not now, of course, but this was from a time when every month brought a new turn to hip-hop and while the music in Beat Street may have been a year or behind was actually being released, it's far from being embarrassing. In fact, it's that rare thing, a film whose soundtrack compares well to hip-hop albums of the time.
If the music raises the movie, then the actual story lets it down. It's a very simple tale of love across a class divide, with Kenny (and his family) scrimping a living as a DJ while college kid Tracy steps out of her well-to-do world to begin a romance with Kenny, albeit that they look happiest together when walking through a snowy Central Park rather than tagging trains on the subway. Perhaps we see too little of Tracy to understand her at all but she seems nice and so do her friends, leaving it to Kenny and his friends to rough things up. Still, as films go, Beat Street avoids anything too grim. The dance battles are uninterrupted by knife fights or gunshots while no matter how threateningly they might look at one another, the New York City Breakers and the Rock Steady Crew respectfully offer one another a sporting chance no matter their meeting at the Roxy or on the subway. To ensure the film isn't all plain sailing, Beat Street finds a way to rid itself of one of its main characters late on in the action. What remains of the film becomes a eulogy for this character but the manner of his death is silly, particularly if you consider the sheer number of threats on the streets of New York.
Not minding that, though, the best thing about Beat Street is that it's had me pulling out all my old hip-hop albums to relive the sound of eighties New York. It'll Take A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, Loc-ed After Dark, Run DMC, Paid in Full and maybe the best hip-hop album you'll ever hear, Paul's Boutique. Free from any legal restrictions - the landmark Grand Upright Music v Warner Bros. Records Inc. case would only be heard in 1991 - these bands sampled their way through decades of pop, rock and soul and, in a makeshift army that included graffiti artists, DJs and breakdancers. They changed music in ways that most bands couldn't hope to do. Beat Street doesn't honour them completely but it's a damn sight better than most.
Optimum have sourced a decent, if unspectacular, print for this DVD. There are scratches but they're nothing to get particularly annoyed about while the grain, which is visible throughout the film, makes it more gritty a movie than could have been hoped for given the romance between Kenny and Tracey. On the whole, though, Beat Street looks good. The inserts of New York, which are little more than stills, give the film a real sense of place while the picture really comes to life in the nightclub scenes. These are a riot of neon, the outrageous stage clothes worn by Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five and shine in a way that the street scenes do not. Otherwise, the DD2.0 audio track does very well by the music, which sounds great, but carries the dialogue without very much flair. Still, that doesn't matter when the featured hip-hop tracks sound as good as this. Finally, there are no subtitles.
The only bonus material is a Trailer (1m28s).