Not the Same Old Song and Dance: Performing Kids Bring New Spirit to Summer Movie Fare
by Jonny Leahan
Since "Jaws" opened in June of 1975, shattering all previous box office records, Hollywood has dedicated the warmer months to big budget blockbuster fare - but this year, a humble trio of early summer docs are crying out for a little attention of their own. Whether it signals a trend or it's purely coincidental, all three films feature kids who are striving to master a certain style of music or dance, often overcoming some kind of adversity in the process.
Marilyn Argelo's "Mad Hot Ballroom," which has already opened in New York and LA, and continues its national rollout through June, is a charming look at 11-year-old students and their efforts to learn ballroom dancing. For kids with limited means, New York City can be a tough place to grow up, and the schools are often as difficult as the streets. But since the start of a city program some years ago that allowed children learn ballroom dancing after school for free, a lot of those kids have found an unexpected way to express themselves. The teachers were as surprised as the students at the program's success, and it's flourished into a citywide competition, with kids competing at various stages, culminating in the finals where one school is declared the victor.
Like "Spellbound," there are tears and triumphs as the film follows the kids throughout various stages of the competition, and it's easy to become absorbed in their lives - watching some stumble and others succeed, all the while feeling for them, regardless of the outcome. Perhaps most striking is the cultural diversity of the children, as they strive to work together despite language barriers and awkward feelings towards the opposite sex, ultimately finding a way to learn steps together as varied as the tango and the foxtrot.
There will be no doing the foxtrot at the Paul Green School of Rock Music, however, where the primary thing on most students' minds is mastering the power chord. Slated for release in select cities on June 3, Don Argott's "Rock School" is an engaging and very funny look at a group of kids who are chasing the ultimate dream of becoming a rock star, and their instructor who was crazy enough to devote a school to the endeavor.
"I've always felt that music is one of the most powerful things you can have in your life," Argott told indieWIRE, "and to be around like-minded kids in the school who are all there for music is an amazing thing. I think whatever ethnic or social background you come from you can always find common ground in music. It was incredible for me to see the discovery of music with these kids. The first time I heard Black Sabbath when I was 10 or 11, it totally changed my life, and when you see these kids in the film get it, you can't help but smile."
Some "get it" more than others, but that only adds to the story, since many of the laughs come from the worst performers, like the adorable 9-year-old twin boys whose mohawks outshine their talent, as their good-natured mom keeps encouraging them to rock on. But the film discovers a true virtuoso in CJ, who overcomes a disability to become a gifted and versatile guitarist, despite being only 14 years old, with the ability to play anything from The Doors to Led Zeppelin with ease and edge.
The same kind of raw talent is everywhere in "Rize," David LaChapelle's debut feature about a groundbreaking dance movement happening in South Central, which opens June 24 in New York and LA. Renowned photographer LaChapelle employs his unique visual style to document the youth of LA's most infamous neighborhood as they create a dance revolution while the cameras roll. Aggressive yet beautiful, the movements are a direct reaction to the violence that surrounds them, often mimicking police beatings and gang fights, but turning them into something as fresh and dangerous as jazz was when it first hit Harlem.
The doc introduces Tommy the Clown, who invented the style in response to the 1992 Rodney King riots, and named it "clowning." Now a father figure to many of the neighborhood kids, he teaches his version of clowning to them in a makeshift school, while entertaining at local birthday parties for a little extra cash. As the phenomenon began to spread, a group of kids created their own splinter movement called "krumping," and they began to form troupes as an alternative to gangs.
Painting their faces like clown warriors, the rival troupes hold competitions reminiscent of rap battles, where the level of cheers and applause from the raucous spectators decides the winner. In a fascinating sequence, the film traces krumping back to African tribal rituals by juxtaposing those indigenous dances with the modern day moves of the South Central krumpers, and the influence is startlingly evident.
As with "Mad Hot Ballroom" and "Rock School," music is an essential element of "Rize," so much so that two of the musicians (Richmond and Tone Talauega) who were instrumental in creating the score were present during filming, in order to fully absorb the energy from the dancers and reflect it in the soundtrack. The Talauega brothers, also producers on the film, were able to work with other musicians to create a soundtrack that integrated the feel of spiritual African dancing and urban oppression with modern hip hop beats.
In all three films, youth of various ages are feeding off the spirit of their surroundings, and end up expressing themselves in very different ways. The one constant is the enthusiasm and energy they bring to the picture. "To be around that much energy and chaos was really inspiring," says Argott. "I hope that audiences will feel the same way about 'Rock School'. Also, on a bigger level, maybe they can see that if you encourage kids and don't coddle them, they'll actually excel and exceed expectations - and not go and shoot up schools."