Slam poetry is never going to be seen as “the way out” for urban teens in the same way that sports is often portrayed in movies/inspirational pre-Super Bowl vignettes, but as the coach of one inner-city high school poetry club proclaims in Louder Than a Bomb, it can at least be a means of “catapulting” the students upward by focusing their energies. Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel’s doc—which takes its name from a massive annual Chicago-area slam contest for high schoolers, which in turn presumably claims its moniker from the classic Public Enemy jam—smartly makes no bold claims about the powers of poetry, except that it can be a vibrant art capable of capturing the imaginations and channeling the talents of a vast spectrum of teenagers.
Focusing on the preparations for and participation in the 2008 contest by four leading Chicagoland high school squads, Louder Than a Bomb makes its points about the diverse appeal of slam by selecting a varied array of students—drawn from impoverished city schools, upscale suburban institutions, and college-prep academies—and watching them do their thing. Problems arise among the competitors (defending champion Steinmetz battles apathy and lack of respect for authority among its members), but are quickly resolved. Backstories are duly set up, but only occasionally milked for sentimental overcoming-adversity narratives.
Mostly, though, Louder Than a Bomb is about the poetry, and Jacobs and Siskel devote large chunks of screen time to the slam artists, including a generous selection of uncut performances. A sort of mix between spoken word and rapping, in the hands of a skilled practitioner, slam is as much about rhythm as it is about the words being spit out, an ideal blend of form and content. Dedicating a good half of their film to the contest itself, the filmmakers showcase an art form diverse enough to include a panoply of styles and methods: the breathless flow of Adam Gottlieb, the staccato rhythms and turn-on-a-dime wordplay of Nate Marshall, the barely suppressed anger of Nova Venerable, the heartrending theatricality of a Steinmetz Academy group piece.
If the aforementioned poets are pushing the envelope of artistic expression, or at least hipping viewers to a form of performance they may not be familiar with, Jacobs and Siskel make no such claims for themselves, relying on functional, if occasionally handsome, camerawork and a familiar structure. All the revelations in Louder Than a Bomb may be extra-cinematic, but there are far worse crimes a documentary might commit than to offer up interesting subject matter, smartly directed.