**½/**** Image C- Sound D+
starring Lucinda Dickey, Shabba-Doo, Boogaloo Shrimp, Ben Lokey
screenplay by Charles Parker & Allen DeBevoise and Gerald Scaife
directed by Joel Silberg
BREAKIN' 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO
***/**** Image B Sound B+
starring Lucinda Dickey, Adolfo "Shabba-Doo" Quinones, Michael "Boogaloo Shrimp" Chambers, Susie Bono
screenplay by Jan Venture & Julie Reichart
directed by Sam Firstenberg
**/**** Image C+ Sound B
starring Rae Dawn Chong, Guy Davis, Jon Chardiet, Leon W. Grant
screenplay by Andy Davis & David Gilbert & Paul Golding
directed by Stan Lathan
by Alex Jackson Ebony and ivory are living in perfect harmony in 1984's Breakin'. This is hardly a "white" movie, but it's not really a "black" one, either. It actually seems that Breakin' is genuinely multicultural: The film doesn't neutralize or marginalize blackness--in fact, it quite certainly celebrates it. But it's not black at the expense of excluding white faces. Instead of aligning itself with one particular racial identity, Breakin' aligns itself with a conglomerate of all of them. This is a party to which everyone is invited.
In spite of its formal flaws and altogether goofiness, Breakin' won me over with its positive energy and sunny optimism. This utopian vision of racial harmony is so delicate that the spell could easily be broken were the film at any point to get self-conscious about its cultural diversity. Fortunately, Breakin' keeps its mouth shut the whole time--the characters don't even use the terms "black" or "white," much less "African-American" or "Caucasian" or "nigger" or "cracker." Neither confrontational nor self-congratulatory, the film disregards the idea of racial conflict, and in so doing, it sells its vision of a new America. I don't know if you could call it naïve, but even if you did, Breakin' maintains a consistent internal logic that justifies and excuses its idiocy. Put simply, the film works.
When she isn't waitressing at the local burger joint, Kelly (Lucinda Dickey) dreams of becoming a "traditional" dancer on Broadway. One day her Gay Best Friend Adam (Phineas Newborn III) decides on a whim to introduce her to his friends Ozone (Adolpho "Shabba-Doo" Quinones) and Turbo (Michael "Boogaloo Shrimp" Chambers); enamoured with their fresh dance style, Kelly begs them to teach it to her. Meanwhile, she finds an agent (Chris McDonald) who thinks she has potential--but not with breakdancing. If she really wants to make it, she has to say goodbye to these "street dancers" and join the winning team.
Ozone has a similar conflict. By associating with Kelly, the possibility arises that he could quit his day job at a corner grocery and dance professionally. The only catch is that he may have to not only compromise his look, but also move from dancing on the street to dancing on the stage. As much as he desires success, he doesn't want to be changed by it. By spreading some of the focus onto Ozone, the film is made genuinely biracial. Kelly shares protagonist duties with Ozone--Breakin' belongs to both of them. Along those same lines, Ozone is conflicted enough that he retains a modicum of humanity, thus preventing his idealization into a noble savage.
All this conflict is positioned as a function of class rather than of race, sometimes painstakingly so. McDonald's use of the phrase "street dancers" can't help but sound like a euphemism, and a scene where Ozone and Turbo uncomfortably mingle among high-society types at an outdoor soiree seems rooted in the NeverNeverLand of Jewish vaudeville (à la the Three Stooges or the Marx Brothers) but is upstaged by the harsher and more realistic incongruity of Ozone and Turbo's blackness. Still, it's understandable that Breakin' would orient itself in this way. Class is a considerably easier target than race; whereas we can say that nobody should have to be poor, we can't say that nobody should have to be black. With the class divide, there is at least room for progress.
One thing I want to discuss before moving on is the depiction of the Gay Best Friend, Adam. The Gay Best Friend has become a stock character of romantic comedies; he's flamboyant and cute but altogether asexual. Although Breakin' more or less goes through the motions with Adam, it retains some sense of self-consciousness about him. It dances around his gayness, dropping hints here and there without actually making it explicit. Adam tells Kelly he has some friends he knows won't try to hit on her before introducing them to Ozone and Turbo, who are members of a decidedly separate subculture. In one sequence, Kelly tries out for a dancing gig wearing a blonde wig as the casting directors keep wanting blondes. They turn her down, prompting her to angrily throw the wig away as she drives off. Adam, who has been waiting outside for morale support, protests, "Hey, I could have used that!"
Now, compare this with the recent "chick flick" Must Love Dogs, where the Gay Best Friend is given a serious lover but is for all intents and purposes a cipher. His presence in the movie is largely reflexive on the part of the filmmakers, as though they unconsciously realized that a rom-com without a homo is like a Thanksgiving dinner without the cranberry sauce. While Adam could hardly be said to forward a progressive image of gays, he is nonetheless funny and warm and we feel like we are laughing with him, not at him. What's particularly offensive about Must Love Dogs is not that it forwards stereotypes, but that it forwards "politically correct" stereotypes: blessing the Gay Best Friend with a partner in Must Love Dogs is a form of faux-progressiveness--it pretends to eliminate stereotypes while in fact maintaining them. Worse, it whitewashes the scraps of gay identity found in the original stereotypes. Breakin' may not be a good movie--indeed, I'm sure that most audiences will find it rather simple-minded and basic. But it's a healthy movie. The ethics of representation of minorities in the media are so delicate and volatile that it is sort of a small miracle to discover a film with a mindset that is able to make it work.
Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo is more or less the exact same movie as the original Breakin', only better. Here, Ozone and Turbo have to save their community centre, Miracles, from being taken over by an evil developer and turned into a shopping mall--they need to raise two-hundred thousand dollars to bring the place up to code. As for Kelly, her rich parents (unseen until this instalment) are terrified to see her throw her life away street dancing instead of going to dance in Paris and returning to, um, Princeton.
I have often found that sequels are more confident than their predecessors. Whereas the first film needs to retain a modicum of conventionality so as to lessen the risk of it failing at the box office, the sequel has already guaranteed itself an audience, leading to a little loosening of the belt. Granted, more freedom does not always guarantee a better film. My short list of über-wacky sequels to relatively conventional films includes such titles as Problem Child 2, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, and The Matrix Reloaded. All are pretty unique; none are as pleasurable (or, at least, endurable) as the original.
Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo benefits from the liberation, however, perhaps because the first film was so thin. The follow-up retains the attractive idealism of the original Breakin' while taking its musical numbers to the next step. The purpose of Breakin' was really to legitimize hip-hop. The function of the multiculturalism, I think, was to make hip-hop an absolute art form that is not specific to a single culture. If it's not translatable, then the implication is that it's not really art. Once hip-hop is legitimized, the stage is set for an honest-to-God, according-to-Hoyle hip-hop musical.
The dance sequences freely and enthusiastically break away from reality. The best individual moment is without a doubt the scene where Turbo suddenly and with no explanation begins dancing on the ceiling. It's wonderful, really, Gene Kelly by way of Freddy Krueger--an announcement of a new aesthetic for musical cinema. Much of the time, the characters just dance in the street. An early scene shows Ozone leading a march to the accompaniment of the theme song. The energy of the dancers is so infectious that meter maids and old ladies begin, um, boogying down. The gang has a similar effect in a hospital, where their presence inspires patients in wheelchairs and on crutches to dance and a quartet of leggy nurses materializes to take over the receptionist desk. The scene plays like The Singing Detective with all the acrid irony boiled out.
And then there are the battling sequences. Battling is how conflicts are resolved in the hip-hop culture: rivals basically dance at each other to retain their dignity. There were battle scenes in Breakin', but every one of them took place in a dance club. Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo brings the battle out on the streets. These battles are bigger, more elaborate, and a hell of a lot goofier. It's pretty angry dancing--these guys are literally shaking with rage as they break it down. At one point, the rival gang brandishes nunchucks while our heroes defend themselves with garbage-pail lids and Ice-T raps on the soundtrack:
To win, you must be hard, not soft
When you get on the floor, you got to go off
Use every move you've learned in life
Dance is your weapon, not a knife
Ayup. I guess that superficially, I should be glad that Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo is genuinely funny. And then, on a deeper level, I should be concerned that its funniness ultimately marginalizes the hip-hop culture into camp. But then, I think there's a third level in which Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo is essentially a positive film--and though it's inviting to newcomers, there is a sense it's really about a closed system. More so than even Breakin', this film never reads as an ethnographic study. Moving out of the dance club and onto the streets is significant: Isolated in the clubs, hip-hop culture is a subculture--it's hidden and, in a very real sense, easy to dismiss. Outside, however, it becomes the dominant culture. You can't ignore it as it has already metastasized into the surrounding society.
From the sunny summer days of the Los Angeles-based Breakin' films, we move to the cold winter doldrums of the Bronx in Beat Street. Although Beat Street has breakdancing and hip-hop in it and it's about street kids trying to break into showbiz, it takes place in a galaxy far away from that of Breakin'. That being said, I'm getting a little sick of recounting the same storyline, but for the record: Kenny (Guy Davis) is an aspiring DJ; his little brother Lee (Robert Taylor) dances; his friend Ramon (Jon Chardiet) is a graffiti artist; and his other friend, Chollie (Leon W. Grant), is a manager. They all live and breathe hip-hop, but maturity is constantly catching up with them--it's apparent that sooner or later, they'll have to stop chasing their crazy dreams and join the human race. This affects Ramon especially hard: he has a baby with his girlfriend but no job. His mechanic father has an old school Puerto Rican ethic and sees his son as a bum and something less than a man. Ramon caves in and ends up getting a shit job at a hardware store. In the meantime, Tracy (Rae Dawn Chong), a college student majoring in music, discovers Kenny and Lee. She wants to use her resources to help them establish themselves--but are they losing something integral to their art in accepting her help?
There is something sort of "respectable" about Beat Street. It's grounded in reality, probably representing the actual experience of hip-hop artists more authentically than something like Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo does. The music is better as well--I like the songs in Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo for what they are, but Beat Street's are smarter and represent a greater range of styles. Two numbers in particular are extraordinary: "Us Girls" by Us Girls starts out with the singers reciting the title--the beat of those two words just stabs you and cuts you open, and while you are opened up, the rest of the song climbs inside you; and "Santa's Rap (Jingle Jangle for the Poor)," by the Treacherous Three, is brutally sardonic, relating how Santa stopped visiting the projects once everybody received their welfare checks.
It's possible that I would have squeezed out another half-star in rating Beat Street had I not seen Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo, but in the warm glow of that film, Beat Street feels a little...well, bleak. Whites are only present in the form of racist cops and the signing label. As the Santa's Rap number indicates, the film is hyperconscious about class and race and has righteous anger towards the system. Kenny drops the "N-word" and later calls Tracy a "missionary who has found her savages." The language in general is harsher, marking what was one of the last uses of "fuck" in a PG-rated film. There is also some rather frank talk concerning whether or not Kenny slept with Tracy.
I'm not trying to sound like an alarmist, but you know, this isn't innocent like the Breakin' movies--it's hard-edged. There isn't a lot of pleasure to be had from the dancing, and any energy that hasn't been focused into rage simply dissipates into the cold Bronx winter. Near the end of the film, a major character is killed off for no real reason at all, and Beat Street never really compensates for the mournful atmosphere afterwards. His death seems to be an extension of the film's downer aesthetic. The characters are a little bit more developed and realized than those of the Breakin' films, but it's strange how much less we care about them; Turbo and Ozone were certainly a little on the cartoony side, yet they were unique and charismatic, which is more than I can say for anyone populating Beat Street. Watching Beat Street, I constantly felt like I was viewing from the sidelines, and that's how I realized that the film became the very thing that Breakin' and Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo so carefully avoided: anthropology.
MGM's "The Breakin' DVD Collection" packages the three films discussed herein plus a fourth disc exclusive to the set that's chock full of extras. Breakin' fares the worst of the trio: The 1:33:1 pan-and-scan transfer is muddy and indistinct excepting the reds, which are oversaturated. The Dolby 2.0 surround audio has no depth, sometimes registering as a bad post-production dubbing job. Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo's 1:33:1 transfer is closer to DVD quality, and although I haven't seen the film on VHS, I'd venture to say that it looks good enough to justify an upgrade. It's clear, sharp, and well-defined. My only caveat is that, like Breakin', the film has been released in fullscreen only. (As I wrote of The Adventures of the American Rabbit, I object to non-OAR titles on principle.) Breakin' 2's Dolby 2.0 surround track is likewise an improvement upon Breakin' 's, sounding very clear with lots of oomph. The one thing we can say for Beat Street is that it comes with both 1:85:1 anamorphic widescreen and fullscreen viewing options, though it's your garden-variety crummy transfer: competent, but grainy and dark, with little effort having gone into improving the aged source print. Similarly, the Dolby 2.0 surround audio sounds a little grainy but passes muster generally speaking. Theatrical trailers for the respective films round out each individual platter.
The brunt of the supplementary material on the fourth disc provides background for newcomers to hip-hop. "The Culture of Hip-Hop" (19 mins.) interviews a number of hip-hop artists, mostly B-boys (dancers), about the history and meaning of hip-hop. Despite the rather outrageous claim by Asia One that hip-hop is the "only thing good" to originate from America, most of those interviewed are very thoughtful and serious in reflecting on their art. We're told that hip-hop originated from New York and is essentially positive and multicultural. Gangster rap is seen as the "commercial" aspect of hip-hop, one variant of hip-hop that happens to be the most marketable. There is no mention whatsoever about any of the films in "The Breakin' DVD Collection", suggesting that they are not nearly as significant as the accompanying liner notes suggest.
"The Elements of Hip-hop" (22 mins.) discusses B-boying, DJing, MCing, and tagging. While there is a general consensus that hip-hop is a form of expression, there also appears to be an element of sport to it. The B-boys react to the beat and interpret it. Following a preset "5, 6,7,8" time is seen as "1983" and "shouldn't even be around any more." Meanwhile, the DJ is constantly looking for new breaks to challenge the B-boys. The liner notes say that this is "a raw and controversial documentary," but that's all hype as far as I can tell.
That's where the educational portion of the extras ends. "Beat Street Battle: Rock Steady Crew vs. New York City Breakers" (6 mins.) is a deleted battle scene from Beat Street. It's fine for a deleted scene, I guess, but yeah, it's basically a chunk of fat that wouldn't play very well in context. I was amused to discover that Rock Steady Crew's uniforms may have served as an inspiration for Ben Stiller's kids in The Royal Tenenbaums. "Shout Outs" (5 mins.) is exactly what it sounds like and predictably worthless. I think that "The Living Legends: Will Not Be Destroyed" (4 mins.) is meant to demonstrate B-boying in action, but if that were the case, it would have been much more successful had they just done it with one B-boy. Instead we cut between several, so it reads like a particularly lame music video. Four photo galleries, one for every film in the collection and then one for the 2004 "B-Boy Summit," round out the bonus platter. Breakin', Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo, and Beat Street are also available for sale individually. Originally published: October 3, 2005.