Judge Brett Cullum krumps his way through this off the hook documentary. Word!
But where are the clowns?
Rize is one of the most visually arresting documentaries you will ever see. No small part of that is because the director is David LaChapelle, a celebrated photographer from Vanity Fair turned music video auteur, who made Christina Aguilera "Dirrty." The man knows how to capture dancers, and make them look sweaty, sexy, and slick. But the largest part of the film's unique look and feel come from its subjects—dancers who dress like clowns, and who have taken popping and locking into a much faster, more physically punishing style called "krumping." The film is awe-inspiring. You won't leave it without being amazed and touched by what's going on South of Hollywood. Ringling Brothers ain't never seen no clowns like this—Rize is off the hook.
Facts of the Case
In 2002, David LaChapelle decided to do a documentary about the street dancers in South Central who inspired a lot of his videos. The film focuses first on Tommy Johnson, who, after a stint in jail for drug dealing, found a new profession as a clown at children's birthday parties. What Tommy brought that was unique to the parties was a clown that could dance hip-hop style. He found out he liked the way people treated him when he was dressed up, and soon white face and big, colorful jumpers became his street wear. He attracted a group of young kids whom he began to dance with. He even started a "clown academy" in his neighborhood to teach dancing and give kids something to do other than join gangs. He started a revolution.
Clowning became a way to reject the gangster lifestyle. In a city where you could be shot for wearing blue or red, the clowns wore every color and showed their allegiance to not being down with the Crips or the Bloods. If you're a fan of The Warriors, you'll marvel at the images of people swinging baseball bats in full glitter make-up actually on the street. It's an amazing fashion trend only the most urban kids could get away with. Imagine clowns invading Toledo, Ohio, and it just doesn't work. But a clown in Compton or Watts? Makes sense in some way. About the closest I could relate to it was my teenage days as a Goth rocker, when my girlfriend used to put some white face on me to take away my tan, and we wore all black. But this is complete clown white face with elaborate designs, and colorful clothes. It's amazing to see.
The movie follows several players in the scene including Tommy, and quite a few of his protégés. We meet unique characters such as Miss Prissy, Tight Eyez, Dragon, El Nino, and Swoop. In one climactic sequence there is a dance-off at The Forum called "Battlezone," where all the dancers face off in one-on-one competitions where the crowd judges the winner. It's a grassroots ghetto clown version of American Idol, but a hell of a lot more fun than that show could ever hope to be.
We get to see the ups and downs of a community, and their struggles to express themselves in any way they can through dance and fashion. It's more rewarding than Rocky, and more visually impressive than any George Lucas effect found in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. These are real people, doing amazing moves at what seems like 500 mph. There's even a statement at the start of the film saying these images "have not been sped up." That's a very necessary disclaimer, because you won't believe the speed. Rolling Stone called the film "a knockout visual miracle," which is the understatement of the year. Rize is something you'll have to see to believe.
The DVD is a fully loaded affair with tons of extras. The feature itself is a brief eighty minutes, but there are hours of extended dance sequences, deleted scenes, further interviews with the subjects, and a commentary from the director. Be sure to check out the photo gallery on the disc, because LaChapelle took some amazing shots of the dancers. It's set to music, and is a prime example of how to do one of these photo collages right. The transfer is fullscreen, but clear. Because Rize was shot on location using a digital video camera under varying conditions, there are sequences that are better looking than others. On the whole, though, this is a fashion photographer capturing his subjects in a flattering way. It's beautiful. Audio is a robust speaker-thumping 5.1 surround or bass-heavy stereo. The music is the main attraction, and dialogue is clear when it needs to be.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Much has been made of the fact David LaChapelle is a white man from Connecticut chronicling a black movement in one of the country's most notorious ghettos. He does splice in newsreel shots of the Watts riots, the Rodney King aftermath, and footage of tribal dancers from Africa. It feels a little strange that he's trying so hard to put the film into some sort of historical context when the interviews clearly reveal the roots of the movement more effectively than his visual montages, which border on offensive if you're sensitive to race issues. He really should have collaborated with someone like Spike Lee to give him some advice, but I can forgive him for doing the right thing in his own way. It just seems heavy-handed coming from a rich Caucasian who usually shoots magazine covers for Vogue and Vanity Fair.
Sometimes the documentary feel of the movie is sacrificed to LaChapelle's sense of style. He does a great job of making South Central look beautiful, but at times it feels too stylized. There's a sequence where a young guy krumps on the beach at dusk while the latest Christina Aguilera hit blares from the speakers. It feels like a set-up. There are so many natural scenes that happen spontaneously, and the design seems to be another area where it feels not as genuine as it could be. He's trying to make something amazing when it already is.
Rize is one of the best releases of this year, and easily one of the most amazing documentaries I have ever seen. Clowning and krumping are shining examples of the triumph of the human spirit to express itself. These kids are amazing, and what they are doing is unbelievably cool. Energy and life have nothing to do with how much money you have or how safe your neighborhood is. People will always find a way to be rich even if its not the typical definition of having a lot of money. These kids have taken anger, oppression, and fear of crime and turned them in to an art form. Rize is at its best when the dancers do their own thing and speak for themselves.
Before I watched this disc I would have never believed the story of an ex-con in South Central who dresses like a clown, complete with a rainbow-colored afro, would inspire me. I would never believe people would chose to smear whiteface and balloons on their face and dance their anger away. David LaChapelle has made a brave movie about the triumph of the human spirit. He's made a career of photographing Madonna, Britney, and Courtney. He never had to make this movie, and it's awesome that he did. He's an artist who has the respect of the world, and he is transferring his respect to a group of kids that deserve just as much recognition as he has garnered. These dancers are accomplished athletes in amazing condition creating a stunning art form.
Rize is an experience you won't forget. It soars.
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Scales of Justice
• DVD Introduction from Cast and Director
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