Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Breakin' (1984)

Back when it was in its heyday, I couldn’t breakdance worth a shit.  Oh sure, I bought the instructional book from my school’s book club (and thus cementing my street cred for all eternity), and I studied the detailed breakdowns of each move.  But there wasn’t a chance in Hell I was going to pull off even the simplest of steps.  I’ve never been adept at things that require a decent amount of physical skill and agility.  I played Pee Wee Football for one year (on the team seemingly constructed entirely of the worst players who tried out).  I think we won one game.  I could be wrong.  It could have been none.  When I used to skateboard, if there was a trick that required the board’s wheels to leave the ground, I couldn’t do it.  Oh, I tried, but it wasn’t happening.  So, my skateboard became basically a very hard, very coarse seat with wheels.  I admire the skill of people who can do these things, some of whom probably even try hard at them.  Of course, there’s also that bastard part of me that just wants to punch them in their stupid faces, but he doesn’t come out too often, and even when he does, he gets over it quickly, because I can assure you, there are things I can do a hundred times better than they.  No, I won’t list them, but to twist around Dizzy Dean’s quote (and give a little credit to local journalist/personality L.A. Tarone), “If you can do it, it ain’t bragging.”

Kelly (Lucinda Dickey) dances her days away at the studio of skanky instructor Franco (Ben Lokey).  Dancing buddy Adam (Phineas Newborn III) entices the eager young lady to come with him to see some “street dancing.”  There, she sees firsthand the fresh moves of Ozone (Adolfo Quinones) and the distressingly high-pitched Turbo (Michael Chambers), and she even gets to partake a little bit, capturing Ozone’s attention.  But the more Kelly hangs with her Breakin’ buddies, the more she struggles over where she belongs.

And that pretty much sums up Joel Silberg’s film to a T.  Thematically, its primary interest is in the division between “serious” dancing and “street” dancing.  What’s intriguing is how this is represented in the film.  Kelly is interested in breakdancing, but is uncomfortable doing it at first.  She has to be brought into that world by Ozone and Turbo.  Her friend Adam can go between both worlds, but he understands that there is an implicit line between them (a bit more on this later).  Franco thinks that breaking is lowly and undeserving of consideration as anything other than a sideshow.  By that same token, Turbo disdains Kelly’s intrusion into his (and Ozone’s) dance world.  Ozone, on the other hand, wants Kelly in his world, but he’s also interested in her romantically.  

This brings me to the underlying notion about this division, and it’s one not only of class but of race.  The breakers are largely underprivileged and non-Caucasian.  Of course, their rough edges rub the upper crust a little raw.  But there’s a character in the middle who helps to span the gap for those audience members not on board from the start (inconceivable, I know).  Kelly’s agent James (Christopher McDonald) is incredulous when Kelly brings up the idea of getting behind an act with Turbo and Ozone.  He’s even shown at one point lounging in a suit by his pool, feeding his dog by hand, just to hammer home that he is genteel and savoir faire.  Yet after he sees them battle-dance their rivals (and as I’ve noted before, it is this sort of thing which is mirrored in many Martial Arts films where conflicts are resolved in equally choreographed but much more contact-friendly displays of prowess), he is ready to back them, not only because they’re talented and his client is involved with them, but because he can make some money off them.  However, James’ capitalistic tendencies never undermine his genuine admiration for and interest in the street dancers.  

On the race side of things, you have Ozone, a Latino who is clearly and amorously interested in the lily-white Kelly.  Maybe with the more urban audiences this would be accepted without a second thought, but for middle class, suburban families in the Eighties, this would not have sat entirely easy.  In this, we have a further illustration of the film’s internal conflict.  Naturally, then, we have the various scenes where Ozone and Turbo go out of their way to tweak the noses of the White Establishment.  Turbo dances at Franco’s studio and then tells the tightass that he is owed money “for teaching you how to dance, sucker.”  Ozone and Turbo show up at a High Society function for James, where they are condescended to by pudgy White people and come back with a few snappy retorts.  Oddly, Adam actually does exist in both dance worlds, but he’s Black, and we get the idea that he started in the serious dance world before getting into the street side, though I don’t recall this being stated outright.  If true, however (and let’s say for the sake of argument that it is), it makes his dual existence easy to accept.  Had he come from the other side, it would have been more difficult to swallow, and there would likely have been some form of suppression/subterfuge in the story that allowed him access to the White-controlled serious dance world.  

But Silberg and company seek to level the playing field, and there are several dance numbers that are lit and treated as respectfully and shot as thoughtfully as anything in Singin’ In The Rain (though without that earlier film’s production design or budget).  Thus, we get sequences like Turbo and his broom, which is filmed as if it were mercury sliding across a tilting platform.  Needless to say, the path to legitimacy for the breakdancers requires some clever (okay, not that clever) deception, but it is done with their tongues firmly in cheek.  But gradually throughout the film, elements of Kelly’s style seep into her numbers with Ozone and Turbo as surely as elements of theirs seep into hers, until the final dance sequence fully integrates both approaches while being given the sort of treatment normally reserved for the “legit” dance world.  Even through the haze of neon, smoke machine fog, and hideous fashions, it’s still a thing of beauty.

MVT:  The MVT on this one is Joel Silberg (sorry, Lucinda, you got it for Cheerleader Camp).  He treats his subjects with respect and films them with some degree of visual flair.  Nevertheless, he understands enough about blocking what he is filming to allow the performers the onscreen space they need to show off the goods.

Make Or Break:  I loved the Training Montage, partly because I’m a sucker for Training Montages, partly because I relish any chance I get to watch Dickey strut her stuff.  

Score:  7/10

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