An exhilarating portrait of a groundbreaking, up-from-the-L.A.-streets strain of athleticism as performance art, “Rize” would make a provocative companion piece to skateboard documentary “Dogtown and Z-Boys.” In contrast to the latter’s retrospective look at the creation of a cutting-edge, beach-infused sensibility, style maker David LaChapelle’s first docu feature, centering on L.A.’s more landlocked stretches, pulses with an of-the-moment urgency. Strong reviews and word-of-mouth should make it one of the best-performing nonfiction films of the year.
“Rize” looks at practitioners of rubber-limbed, freestyle clown dancing and its fiercer spin-off, krumping, which best forth in predominantly black, low-income areas of South Central such as Watts, Inglewood and Compton. Clown dancing arose in response to the Rodney King riots of ’92, when a one-time drug dealer who had discovered his inner entertainer turned himself into Tommy the Clown, whose birthday parties or kids and Hip-Hop Clown Academy spawned a generation of clown dancers and krumpers. With his rainbow wig and painted face, Tommy, a father fighter to kids in need, turns the Bozo template into an unlikely expression of dignity.
The dancers LaChapelle profiles testify to the surrogate-family aspect of dance groups, which number upward of 50 and provide a vital alternative to gangs. That’s a lot to offer in economically ravaged neighborhoods where there are no after-school arts programs. Exuberant in their wild beauty and physics-defying speed, clown dancing and the harder-edged krumping give form to a self-affirming, primal fury. Once dancer speaks of krump as innate, and in an extraordinary sequence LaChapelle intercuts the L.A. performers with scenes of strikingly similar African tribal dance rituals.
Fashion photographer/music video director LaChapelle closes “Rize” by indulging in a redundant dance sequence that, however visually impressive, zaps some of the film’s cumulative force. And after some of the subject has proclaimed their determination to resist commercial, MTV-style co-optation, it feels antithetical.
The time would have been better spent listening to the dancer—like 18-year-old swoop, who started clown dancing at 12 and says he would have been a “bad person” without it. Or the eloquent Dragon, whose story is a testament to inner strength and resilience. Given their landscape of deprivation, addiction, incarceration and violence, anything these spirited survivors have to say is well worth listening.
By Sheri Linden