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"...truly the Voice of the Gutter!" Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style

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“...truly the Voice of the Gutter!”: Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style

“So you want to be an artist, huh?” a woman in evening gown, jewels and 80s power hair says while reclining on the bed in her luxury apartment. Skinny teenage graffiti bandit Raymond (Lee Quiñones), aka Zorro, answers the rich, white prospective patron, who seems more interested in sleeping with him than taking him seriously, “I am an artist.” He isn’t particularly thrown by her Mrs. Robinson act. He wants to know if she really respects his work. Still, he can’t help but be the kid he is when taking in the apartment’s stunning city view: “Wow, you know I only see this in comic books.”

Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style has retained its cult classic status for 25 years as a time capsule of early 80s hip hop culture, but seen right now, it stands out most as a satire on urban class collision. It’s all about the way promoters, brokers, journalists, patrons, wannabes and naysayers interact with a rising art star straight from the slums. It playfully mines the silly surrealism of art world ascension, typified by the wealthy art client in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat, who gasped in admiration at the titular painter’s work: “... truly the Voice of the Gutter!”

Raymond’s not out to be the Voice of anything other than himself. He just wants to make his graffiti art anonymously, staying steps ahead of the cops. He “bombs” subway cars in the rail yards and returns to his disapproving older brother via fire escape late at night. Any fan of Nas’ 1994 debut album Illmatic remembers the ensuing brotherly exchange as a classic intro sample: “Stop fuckin’ around and be a man. There ain’t nothing out here for you!” “Yes, there is ... this.” In drops a beat that is pure primal NYC hip hop, the “Subway Theme” by DJ Grand Wizard Theodore. Where the Nas cue, “Genesis,” would layer in gritty, smoked out voices of barely legal young thugs talking tough, Ahearn gives us a montage of gloriously defaced subway trains snaking through elevated tracks, sprawling murals, urban blight, sketchpads run riot with color, Zorro on the move, and his graffiti rivals, a crew called The Union. It’s clear that, beyond love and a steady income, Ray wants for little more in this brave young world.

Trouble is, others have different plans for him. An aggressive young promoter (Fred Braithwaite, a.k.a.Fab 5 Freddy) pushes him to interview as Zorro with magazine journalist Virginia (downtown culture luminary Patti Astor, playing a Deborah Harry-ish blond bombshell who seems impossibly ditzy for a reporter). He takes Virginia on a tour of New York hip hop, from graffiti wall murals to the rail yards to a raucous party packed with rappers, DJs, and breakers. Zorro reluctantly tags along, worried that appearing in a magazine will make him a prime police target. (The party scene and all other musical numbers in Wild Style fill in the gaps in NYC subculture history left by the post-punk-centric Downtown 81, another film featuring Quinones and Fab 5 Freddy, along with Jean-Michel Basquiat.)

The trio then go to a swank party full of condescending/curious Manhattan elites and art world people—but not before Zorro and the reporter almost get their heads blown off by stick-up kids with a sawed-off shotgun. Freddy intervenes right on time. “Hey, man, nah, they’re cool!” As delicately as if he’d just mispronounced a name at a dinner party, the lead robber lowers his shotty and apologizes: “Yo, man, I’m sorry. I had no idea these were your friends.” Freddy graciously shrugs, “Don’t worry ’bout it, man. You know how that goes.” Afterward on the ride uptown, Virginia squeals, “Wait til I tell all the people at the party I almost got killed! They’ll love it!” This is Ahearn and company, who learned how to make a feature film only by shooting this movie on the fly, also learning how to make social satire from scratch. Adorable.

Even cuter, Zorro pines after Rose (graffiti artist Sandra Fabara, a.k.a. Lady Pink), who he first assumes is his new girlfriend on the basis of a sweet kiss at the film’s beginning, but later suspects has been stepping out on him with various members of The Union. Wild Style takes this romantic subplot into a more interesting place than you might expect. Ray ultimately charms Rose through his work, and their relationship is consummated not in the bedroom but through an 11th hour brainstorm when Zorro is stumped for ideas while facing a deadline on a band shell mural he has been commissioned to paint for the movie’s big showstopper. Rose shows her love for him by telling him his big idea sucks and suggesting a better one. Instead of boiling into an argument, this confrontation sends Zorro sky high. She’s kept it real with him and fed his imagination, not his ego or his ambition. It’s a lovely little moment.

Ahearn’s style is as simple and direct as the raps. He apparently didn’t waste a lot of time rehearsing or polishing the film’s dialogue, preferring to just set up situations and let them play out. The result has all the befuddled charm of a middle school talent show where the kids all have talents, just not always the ones they’ve been asked to perform. In this charmingly ragged way, Wild Style celebrates the persistence of street-level ambition, insatiable creativity, and youthful passions in the face of hostile (the cops) and exploitative (media) forces. Zorro wants his work to be appreciated, sure, but he’s not out to conquer the world or become a perpetual moving target . Yet that’s just what hip hop would do/become within four years of Wild Style’s completion. Those who still love and contribute to the culture return to this film as a wellspring of hip hop’s d-i-y, improvisatory spirit. Many point to the impromptu scene of Grandmaster Flash doing turntable sorcery in his kitchen as an emblem of that spirit. But this film overflows with such images. My favorite passes by in a flash: Knobby-kneed little neighborhood kids pitch in to help Zorro finish the band shell, maneuvering paint rollers nearly twice their height, as serious and focused as classical artisans.

Steven Boone is a New York-based critic and filmmaker, a contributor to Vinyl Is Heavy and the publisher of Big Media Vandalism.