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  Beat Street Hip Hop Don't StopBuy this film here.
Year: 1984
Director: Stan Lathan
Stars: Rae Dawn Chong, Guy Davis, John Chardiet, Leon W. Grant, Saundra Santiago, Robert Taylor, Mary Alice, Shawn Elliott, Jim Borelli, Dean Elliott, Franc Reyes, Tonya Pinkins, Lee Chamberlin, Antonia Rey, Duane Jones, Afrika Bambaataa, Kool Herc, Melle Mel
Genre: Drama, Music
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: Kenny Kirkland (Guy Davis) is an aspiring DJ from the Bronx who currently plays tiny gatherings in the smallest clubs in the neighbourhood, but he has high hopes to break out of this ghetto and perform at the city's most prestigious nightclubs. All of his friends embody aspects of hip hop culture, with his brother Lee (Robert Taylor) a skilled breakdancer, Chollie (Leon W. Grant) a rapper and Ramon (John Chardiet) a graffiti artist, and they all have big dreams. Will professional dancer Tracy Karlson (Rae Dawn Chong) be able to help?

Beat Street is usually lumped in with the Breakin' movies as a lightweight and cheesy exponent of hip hop movies of the eighties, but while it shares elements with those two such as the dancing and musical numbers, this is a far more self-consciously realistic affair, even gritty with its depiction of the street life that so influenced pop culture of the day. Considering the impact such media had, you might have expected a rash of at least cash in movies, but it seems hip hop was more content to stick with the music, so you were more likely to see your favourite rap stars in videos rather than starring in movies.

Or even enjoying cameos as they do in this; there are some very prestigious names appearing here for a number or two, including Afrika Bambaataa, Melle Mel, Doug E. Fresh, The Rocksteady Crew and godfather of the movement Kool Herc. So if you're keen on seeing these acts at somewhere near their prime, then this is worth catching. Otherwise, its reliance on being as authentic as possible translates into a rather joyless experience, certainly compared with the Breakin' films, even if the tunes are worth hearing and give the mood a necessary lift - the sludgily romantic soul ballads excepted.

What Beat Street really needed was a stronger storyline than a simple rags to riches one familiar from a multitude of other musicals, with a bit of tragedy dropped in at the end to make us feel like this is very serious indeed. The cast are willing, however, and although nobody was going to win any awards for acting in this, nobody embarrasses themselves. Where it especially takes off is when the characters dance, a ray of exuberant light through all this gloom and earnestness, with some incredible moves being exhibited in impromptu competitions, the risk of being broken up by The Man the only downside.

This was produced by Harry Belafonte, interestingly enough (you might not have expected the man who brought us "Day-O!" to be a big follower of rap), and horror fans will be buoyed by the sight of Night of the Living Dead star Duane Jones as a record producer mentor who Kenny rejects when offered his big break, wishing to make it on his own with nobody's help. Funnily enough, Kenny and company are not massively sympathetic, with Ramon particularly annoying in his high opinion of his train decorations and most put out that there's a rogue spray can enthusiast on the loose who is messing up his designs. But forget the drama and watch this for the music and for the history it represents; there was too little of this in films of the eighties to show what it was like before the gangstas took over, making Beat Street worthwhile.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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