By Eric Kohn | Indiewire May 10, 2011 at 2:00AM
"The point is not the point," goes the slogan of "Louder than a Bomb," the world's largest high-school poetry slam. "The point is the poetry." In the documentary directed by Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel, also called "Louder than a Bomb," the filmmakers tussle with that optimistic assertion by surveying various teen competitors, many of whom come from troubled homes. Although initially assuming the format of a sports story, with several high school teams gearing up for the annual city-wide competition, the narrative eventually pulls back to celebrate the impact of poetry on their lives. As a result, the slogan doubles as a tagline, although the film lacks the subjects' unbridled energies.
Assuming a structure familiar from spelling-bee portrait "Spellbound," "Louder than a Bomb" explores four competitors gearing up for the 2008 event, which has taken place each year since 2001. Each fills a different archetype, making it possible to show the broad possibilities for poetry to provide a vessel for teenage expression.
Nova Venerable riffs on her fractured home life, which includes her estranged father and a younger brother suffering from Tourette's Syndrome. Hippie child Adam Gottlieb plays off his Jewish roots with speedy rhymes like a next generation Beastie Boy, and a quartet calling themselves The Steinmenauts (after their school, Steinmetz Academic Centre) assemble fierce indictments of violence plaguing Chicago's far west side. Rounding out the contenders, the supremely eloquent Nate Marshall blends sharp cultural analysis with hip hop style (His most famous line: "I'm gonna be the first spoken word brother with a shoe…deal").
As they discuss their aspirations, "Louder than a Bomb" explores the intricacies of the poetry slam world, from devoted coaches to supportive parents. The general vibe is hugely celebratory from start to finish. Nobody suffers a serious setback on camera, and virtually everyone involved considers poetry essential enough to their lives that the actual competition matters less than the unifying spirit behind it. That the son of drug addicts from Chicago's south side can befriend an upper middle class white kid means they're both winners, right?
The constant emphasis on a heartwarming message downgrades the drama. As a record of how poetry can provide a vibrant outlet for disaffected youth, "Louder than a Bomb" is extremely potent, but the investigatory quality of the filmmaking leaves much to be desired. Although the directors commendably avoid the routine approach of singling out the competitor who ends up taking the top prize, they don't raise the stakes enough to develop the movie's value into much more than a record of engrossing performances. But those performances are certainly magnificent: When Marshall--a soft spoken, bookish type--takes the mic, his true identity blossoms and the crowd goes wild.
And yet anyone interested in witnessing the extraordinary brilliance of Nate Marshall can easily look him up online. Just click here. Or here. Or here, to witness the show-stopping delivery that provides a triumphant finish to "Louder Than a Bomb." Assembling an online clip show recreates much of the experience that the movie offers. The filmmakers hardly examine the stories behind the poems, instead choosing to showcase the talent--a noble and effective mission, to be sure, but one that leaves the door open for a more extensive analysis of this unique endeavor. With its cheery finale, "Louder than a Bomb" avoids exploring the provocative shades of gray laid bare by the emerging poets in focus.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Already a hit on the festival circuit and endorsed by Oprah, the documentary should garner strong numbers when it premieres on the talk show host's OWN network as part of the "OWN Documentary Club" later this year. Opening in limited release next weekend, it should bring out decent crowds.
criticWIRE grade: B