Hip-hop music may be dead at the hands of corporate thug rap, but the culture lives on, worldwide, says Planet B-Boy. With MTV-ready impatience, some aerobic camerawork and a classic tournament sports movie structure, the film makes the b-boy lifestyle seem alive and fresh for ’08. Here, breakdancing is back as a combination art form/extreme sport. In some ways, Benson Lee’s documentary plays like an account of life after a happy divorce, told from the long-suffering wife’s (the culture’s) perspective—the abusive husband (the music) long gone. Yes, there are a few head-bobbing beats in Planet B-Boy, but most of the stuff sounds like programmatic, royalty-free rap muzak. Still, it gets the job done, proving some of the performers’ point that a true b-boy needs only a beat and a flat surface to conjure up the spirit of hip hop.
This is good TV, but it benefits from a big screen presentation, too, because, well, the bigger the windmill or head spin, the better. Similarly, Lee’s sense of pacing may be straight out of an ESPN highlight reel, but his dramatic scope is novelistic. The film shows five breakdancing crews preparing for the international Battle of the Year championship in Germany: France, USA, Japan and South Korea (represented by two teams, last year’s returning champs and the new national finalists). The rivalries are easy to anticipate: The arrogant, graceful French trade trans-Atlantic glares with the flashy, arrogant Americans. The daredevil Koreans hope to settle historical scores with the innovative Japanese. A lot of good-natured boasts and tough talk pass as the boys train round the the clock in their respective time zones. The Americans focus on showmanship and a clever hook; the French go for musical dance flourishes; the Koreans attempt outrageously complex choreography; the Japanese emphasize personality and passion.
It’s hard not to break out in a warm grin at the boyish bravado on display here especially if, like me, you were around for the first wave of of breaking in the ’80s. Some of those old-timers appear in Planet B-Boy to provide a brief history of the form; some of the breakers they inspired are the judges and organizers of the Battle of the Year. There’s talk of having rushed out to see Flashdance in ’83, just for the iconic scene of The Rock Steady Crew stopping pedestrian traffic. Lee plays that clip and re-creates its ground-level telephoto shot in scenes of the competitors practicing in their hometowns. Cute, corny, dazzling, stirring.
There’s some bouncy Michel Gondry/Jonathan Demme multi-culti human interest peeking through this film’s slick surface, and it works small wonders at times. The French crew, a team of stocky, mostly black young men, has adopted a spindly little white boy as one of its star performers. The boy’s mom carefully describes her initial trepidation and “racism” when she met her son’s new playmates. In a priceless two-shot, the kid sits next to Mom during this confession, staring off and muttering, “get over it.” Love, bewilderment, embarrassment and reconciliation in a frame. It’s one of several such child/parent compositions in the film that tell a story fit for a whole ’nother documentary. In the Korean and Japanese segments, these two-shots challenge stereotype. The conservative moms and dads are baffled by this strange dance, yes, but they’re doing their best to bend a little, despite rigid ideas of what constitutes a legitimate career. Perhaps the folks bite their tongues because the Battle of the Year offers not just prize money but the potential for a lucrative career of touring shows, endorsements and TV appearances.
Ah, the corporate specter. Early on, the film draws a B.C./A.D. line between the death of true hip hop music at the dawn of the ’90s and the resurgence of grassroots b-boy culture from its ashes in subsequent years, in unlikely corners of the earth. Now that breaking is back on the big media radar, is b-boy next to be strip-mined? Is a Fox network breakdance competition series in the works? Planet B-Boy doesn’t bother with all that. This film’s long third act is all about the suspense and spectacle of non-lethal combat. The kids all convene in Germany as wary enemies, housed in a Tower of Babel school building-turned-makeshift hostel; they part a few days later mostly as newfound friends, still a little buzzed from the post-competition beer and laughter. In between, there’s a brutal, dazzling world war.