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I have to admit that before seeing Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel's
documentary "Louder Than a Bomb", I had never given much thought to rap
music or to poetry slams. I have dismissed rap music as a musical
conduit that celebrates a culture of guns, drugs, lewdness, racism,
sexism and swagger. Poetry slams, I have thought even less about. I
sort of regarded as something sectioned off into the beatnik coffee
houses of Greenwich Village.
"Louder Than a Bomb" had me thinking deeply about the possibilities of both art forms. They can both be used as avenues to address cultural issues and break down stereotypes. If every kid thought as deeply about their lives and their environment as the kids in this movie, we'd be on our way to a better world.
A poetry slam, in case you don't know, is a competition in which poets recite poetry as performance, in this case much like rap. A panel of up to five judges give scores based on performance and the content of the material. The scores look very much like you might see in a diving competition. Most of what the contestants convey comes from their charisma, their content and their rhythm. When a contestant is really in the zone, it is a sight to behold. The poetry takes the form of rap without music. A person takes the mike and begins a sort of verbal dance, addressing cultural and personal issues that are important to them. There is a lot of emotion in their performances and many start slow and build to a crescendo that makes your pulse race.
The movie is about the 2008 high school poetry slam in Chicago called "Louder Than a Bomb". Over 50 high school from all over the Chicago area compete, and the finalists perform in an arena to an enormous crowd. The focus of the film is Steinmetz High School which won the competition in 2007 in a major upset under the direction of the tough-loving Coach Sloan who helps them work their frustration into an artistic expression. The film follows the competitors form Steinmetz and other schools as they work their hearts out trying to get a spot in the competition.
Most of the kids performing are from the inner-city, from various high schools in the area. Most are black or Latino and live in rough areas and rough circumstances. The most memorable is Nova Venerable, a strong-willed young girl from Park River Forest High School who helps her mother at home with her younger brother who has a disability. Her writing is a sad allegory of her struggles at home and with her father who is not in the picture. She has the heart of a lion. Also unforgettable (and the one you'll remember) is Adam Gottlieb, a student of Northside College Prep who's round face bears a permanent grin. His spirit at the microphone is breathtaking. There's Lamar, who pours over obsessively over his notebook. In his eyes are a manner of intelligence and poise that might make him a great orator or a civic leader. Then there's my favorite Big C, tall and heavyset who wants to win and doesn't hide his tears or his big heart.
"Louder Than a Bomb" was directed by Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel. Their film had me thinking of how easy it is to turn a negative into a positive. If rap music could turn itself around and address positive issues then it might be used as an invaluable educational tool. If a movie like this could be turned into a reality show for television, I think it would be a brilliant alternative to the negative junk that is being fed to our nation's youth. Just imagine the impact it could have.
"Most people do not believe in anything very much and our greatest
poetry is given to those of us who do." Cyril Connolly
The Poetry Slam in Chicago, 2008, a rousing competition documented by the Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel team, has an abundance of energy and love that almost overcomes the astonishing virtuosity of the individual participants.
Although the film has a now common narrative pattern of following a few teams and stars months before the competition, the tension is still there as eliminations breed sorrow and success tests nerves. Steinmetz city school won in an upset in 2007, so can it win again in 2008? You just don't know until the last minutes of the doc, a formula for action but just as compelling as being at the competition that last night.
The solo artists are more powerful for me than the team. Some of their poetry, such as that of Nova Venerable from Oak Park/River Forest High School, is plain arresting, hers about her father and disabled brother as authentic and emotionally electric as the best writing you could read on the subjects. (Nova, like her name, is from another world). Adam Gottlieb, from Northside College Prep, is the most personable with words about his Jewish heritage that must make his race proud to be on his lips.
These slammers are not rappers, who rely on a repertoire far beyond the simple voices of the slammers, but their messages are so authentic and unadorned you might book a flight to the windy city for the next poetry slam. Of course, that wind would be the dynamic breath of these teens, who are disadvantaged no morejust watch the postscript for the colleges they are attending.
At any rate, it's not basketball but an awful lot of slam dunks by gifted poetry soloists
We're in the golden age of documentaries -- in 2011 alone, we had (in
my rough order of preference) Pina, Bill Cunningham New York, If a Tree
Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, We Were Here, The Arbor,
Project Nim, The Interrupters, Into the Abyss, Senna, Buck, and The
Last Lions all released to some combination of critical and popular
acclaim (and Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which I missed in 3D).
But not every great doc gets the attention it deserves. I saw a trailer for this at my local art-house cinema (part of the Landmark chain), so I'm flabbergasted that it only grossed 40K, has so few votes here, and has been rented less than 2000 times at Netflix. (In comparison, Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead, which was the best underrated doc of the year, has been rented 770,000 times despite going direct to DVD.) I watched this with my 20-year-old godson, who is a regular (and one-time winner!) at the Wednesday night slam at the Cantab in Cambridge, Mass. He gives it a 9.2. The film captures remarkably well the sense of community that bonds slam poets together, and some of the poetry and performances are jaw-droppingly good.
I actually wonder whether this film would have been even better if at had been *longer*. It is very clearly modeled after Spellbound -- the "problem" is that the competition here is so worth watching that the film devotes much more time to it, and hence there is significantly less background about the four young poets that are being followed. It's clear that the filmmakers did not follow their home lives a la Hoop Dreams, and it's not hard to wonder whether they might have had a minor masterpiece if they had had the opportunity to do so. (I admit to brain cramping and not checking the DVD extras for deleted scenes before sending the disk back -- which I regret now!)
I can't call this a "must-see" for general audiences (hence the 7 grade -- I'm a very tough grader), but it certainly is for anyone who loves poetry, slam or otherwise.
Louder Than A Bomb follows a few select groups of teenagers as they prepare for and then compete in a local spoken word poetry competition. As we watch them pursue their dreams, we share their laughter, their tension, their emotional suffering, their excitement and joy. This would be a great story in and of itself, except the story is not played out by actors but by real people living their real lives (think Hoop Dreams), making this sports story of sorts all the more engaging. We grow to know these teenagers and by the end we come to realize that the contest itself is actually irrelevant, that they have all matured by the experience and that they are all winners. Still, the excitement of the actual competition scenes, where these young poets are exhibiting more poetic talent than can be found within the pages of most of the so-called accepted poets, is nothing short of breath taking. This film is the definitive response to anyone who refuses to recognize the twenty-five year old poetry slam movement. The miracle of that movement is that even after all this time it still remains fresh, and nowhere is this better demonstrated than in Louder Than A Bomb.
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