Friday, June 13, 2008


Review: Planet B-Boy
5 stars (out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund

While an absurdist comedy like last year's Jamie Kennedy flop Kickin' it Old Skool may suggest that breakdancing died in the late '80's, director Benson Lee's rousing documentary Planet B-Boy confirms that the widely overlooked art form is alive and well. Spanning numerous countries around the world and presented in over six different languages, the film is like a UN conference with a turntable.

It opens with a history of the dance, along with the culture of hip-hop from which it was born. Going back as far as the late '60's, participants like original B-Boy (aka Beat Boy) Ken Swift recount the culture's formative years, and clear up its common misconceptions. According to Swift and co., hip-hop is very different from rap, composed of DJ's, MC's, graffiti artists, and of course, B-Boy's. It's revealed that the influences of breakdancing - the legitimacy of which is repeatedly stressed – included Kung Fu, gymnastics, and the unique moves of James Brown; and that the late '70's marked its official, widespread arrival. More than one guest makes mention of 1983's Flashdance, to which these guys flocked, not to see Jennifer Beals in off-the-shoulder sweats, but then-underground-legends like Swift and “Freeze” in curbside cameos. That movie's success ushered in what was a apparently a decade-long bout of breakdance exploitation, remedied in 1990 with the formation of a worldwide competition that would rightfully bring the head-spinning, windmill-ing form of expression back to its feet.

Battle of the Year (which appropriately, and perhaps unintentionally, bears the acronym B.O.Y.), an annual competition based out of Hanover, Germany, was that remedy, and it serves as a platform for the action of Lee's film. Founded by Germany's Thomas Hergenrother (who, as proof of the phenomenon's cultural diversity, is markedly white), the tournament attracts teams from over 18 countries each year. Lee introduces us to a handful of those teams during the strenuous months leading up to Battle of the Year '05, including '04 champions The Gamblerz from Korea, France's Phase-T, and USA's Knucklehead Zoo from Las Vegas. Clever transitions made up of moving maps and an animated subway let us follow these teams around the world, like an international monorail tagged with colorful graffiti. We learn not only the various dancing styles of these vastly different groups, but also the motivations of their members, back stories about family and friends, and the passion for the “sport” that unites them all. Lee obviously cannot show all of Battle of the Year's hopefuls, and like any non-fiction entertainment, individuals with the most charisma (like team Ichigeki's “Prince” of Japan) get the most play, but the representative sample gets a loud, clear point across.

A contagious energy spills out of the screen once these B-Boy's get moving. Whether it's the daring showmanship of Phase-T (which even has a young boy in their crew), the technical wizardry of The Gamblerz and Last for One (also from Korea), or the transcendent style of Ichigeki, one can't help but get caught up in the graceful insanity of these dancers. Their inspired, rhythmic movements succeed in showing what the founders were so intent on telling in the movie's earlier scenes: breakdancing is far from illegitimate. The finale in Germany unfolds the way most movies of this type usually do, be them documentary or narrative features. The teams we've come to know put all of their best efforts on the line, and square-off against one another in one last fight for the gold (which here, is primarily notoriety and future opportunities, as the miniscule prize money is distributed among the victors). But as someone observantly pointed out to me, one of the more impressive differences about Planet B-Boy is the lack of any and all coaching. These artist/athletes choreograph all of their own moves and shows, and invest their own time into it because they're doing what they love. Tie-breaking “battles” highlight the improvisational side of the competition, but the six-minute “performances” from each country truly showcase each crews' talents.

Planet B-Boy puts a lot of emphasis on the fact that breakdancing is a lot like fighting, although no opponent ever strikes another. The intensity is there, but the violence is not. This aspect remained with me long after the film ended. It opened up the possibility that Lee's work could not only educate and entertain, but perhaps inspire an urban youth to productively channel his or her energy into something artistic; something that has as much street cred. as gang violence, without any of the repercussions. If it achieves that inspiration (which it could), than it's not only a fine piece of entertainment, but a priceless one. Even if it didn't, it would still be one of this Spring's best movies.

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