Slam poetry. It can be a misunderstood art form, exalted in places like Def Poetry Jam, or snubbed as a silly high school phase. But what Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel‘s documentary “Louder Than A Bomb” does so well, is point out how something like slam poetry can offer an outlet, and a way out, for kids trapped in their circumstances. The film follows the Chicago area high school slam poetry competition of the same name, during a particularly dramatic and glorious run in the fall of 2007 and spring of 2008. Focusing on four teens from different Chicago high schools and their experiences with the Louder Than A Bomb competition, the film offers a look into this world and the impact it has on the lives of its participants. The four teen poets– Lamar, Nova, Nate and Adam— are clearly the standouts of the competition itself, true success stories for what their high school slam poetry teams have done for them. Framed as a real competition doc, it’s an entertaining, soulful look at this significant event in the lives of these young people.
“Louder Than a Bomb,” uses the now familiar genre formula seen in such competition docs as “Spellbound,” “Planet B-Boy,” and “Murderball,” relying on viewer knowledge of these tropes to plunge into the action of the competition itself, after a brief setup of our four protagonists, their schools, families, lives and poetry. Reigning champion Steinmetz (Lamar’s school) took the 1st prize trophy last year, upon their debut performance in the contest, with what seems like pure swagger, and they are struggling prove themselves again to win the respect of the more seasoned veterans, represented by Nate, Adam and Nova. The film relies on the underdog sports movie storyline when it comes to the Steinmetz team, configuring them in the same way as “The Mighty Ducks,” for example, a ragtag bunch of underprivileged kids who excel with a little bit of talent and a whole lot of heart. Their beleaguered coaches are frustrated by a seeming waste of potential, the usual teenage tomfoolery and trying to keep the team’s eyes on the prize. In keeping with the sports movie theme, there’s even a poetry writing training montage of sorts, and a score tally is kept on the screen during a particularly tense moment during the semi-final round.
If there’s a flaw within this very well-made documentary, it’s that the film tries to have it both ways in terms of its storytelling and doesn’t quite pull it off. They set up the four kids as our protagonists, but the drama and colorful characters of the Steinmenauts (new team name) take over the story in the middle section of the film, during the semi-finals, as they battle bad judging to come from behind and wow everyone with a bravura performance. Is it a classic tale of the underdog team or is it a nuanced portrait of these four talented, very different teenagers who are brought together by their love for this art form? In trying to do both, the film sacrifices a bit of the emotional attachment that we might have with these compelling characters. They use titles and graphics to structure the narrative of the competition, which imparts a bit of drama into the proceedings, though seems hardly applicable to such a personal art form as slam poetry. Scoring one of these emotional, dramatic poems performed in such a deeply personal style seems a fool’s errand, and everyone involved seems aware of this cruel necessity. That said, each story is touching and pulls you not only into the drama of the competition, but their everyday lives.
And how’s the poetry itself? Well, much of it is typical teen angsty stuff, but we’ll allow that, we’ve all been through that phase. However, when one of our four protagonists takes the stage, you know why they were the chosen ones. They seem to explode with words, more than you can comprehend, and it becomes less a poetry performance than an exorcism, especially when it comes to the raw detail and emotion of Nova’s personal poems concerning her family. Their wordplay, performance and sheer willingness to put themselves out there on stage, into a mic, laying bare every emotion is breathtaking (for both the viewer and the poet). You can tell it’s a cathartic experience, and that the acceptance and respect of their peers is worth more than any convoluted point system.
Throughout the competition, the organizers repeat “the point is not the points, the point is the poetry,” a maxim that the kids grasp as they embrace the experience for its less tangible rewards. The concept has been embodied by Nate for the majority of the film, as the veteran of the scene, and probably the one who has reaped the most benefits from process, rising up from a South Side Chicago ghetto and drug abusing parents to become the leader and self-proclaimed “nerd” that he is today. Though it’d be nice to win, Nate knows he already has. The most joyful moment of the competition is when Adam is awarded the Spirit of the Slam award, for his unending positive attitude and support of the other poets; he’s just there for the experience. It is clear (and stated) that he is loved and revered by all, and yet, he loves and reveres them all equally in return. By the end of the film, as their photos and the names of their respective colleges are flashed onscreen, over the credits, we realize that as viewers, the point is not the poetry itself, but the journey of personal growth, passion for writing, and chance to connect with something larger than themselves that is really the point. Something that anyone would be lucky to be experience. [B+]
“Louder Than A Bomb” premieres on OWN tonight at 9 PM.