"Welcome to the post hip-hop era. Fashion photographer and music video maker David LaChapelle’s exhilarating entry into feature documentary, "Rize," takes "krumping" – wildly energetic dancing that blends avant-garde with athletics, off the streets of South Central Los Angeles and into the mainstream. Eye-popping visuals and an appreciation of social complexities combine for an entirely satisfying experience that will bring audiences out of their seats in a good way. Lions Gate’s pickup at Sundance will help get the film in front of crowds of youths, from the ‘hood to the ‘burbs, ready for the next new thing.
Whether krumping stays fresh and avoids becoming a trend once it goes wider is part of the films unknowable legacy, but leading krumpmeister Dragon tries to neutralize this effect right off the bat by insisting to the camera; “this is not a trend.” Krump dance moves are explosive and hyperkinetic – a krumper in full motion looks like a human rubber band snapping up and down and sideways – a style that could either take over the dance floor or seem too difficult.
Rize is an expansion of LaChapelle’s previous Sundance foray, his short "Krumped,” which earned an honorable mention nod last year, and continues an extremely unlikely union between one of Vanity Fairs top photographers and poor kids in the ghetto. A brief introduction establishes a historical context for Los Angeles with clips of the 1965 Watts Rebellion and what the film terms “the 1992 Rodney King riots” (which others view as the city’s second modern urban rebellion).
Out of the ’92 ashes, the resourceful Tommy Johnson created a persona called Tommy the Clown, blending a traditional birthday party clown act with hip-hop attitude and a strong anti-gang message. Hugely popular in South Central, Johnson developed his own Clown Academy, which fostered the outbreak of more than 50 clown groups in the area – a cheery, goofy but dedicated performing league meant to draw youth away from gangs with scene-stealing dance moves and nonviolent fun.
As Johnson’s closest younger friend Lil’ Tommy puts it “It’s either gangs or clown groups.”
But after nearly a decade of leadership, Johnson found a younger generation was taking clowning and turning it into krumping. Not exactly suited to birthday parties, the new dance is captured by LaChapelle with extraordinary vigor and sympathy for its radical physicality, in which pairs of dancers gyrate around or against each other (even pushing each other). High culture fans may spot links here to many contemporary choreographers, but LaChapelle and ace editor Fernando Villena brilliantly draw a direct visual correlation with ancient African tribal dance.
The private lives of Johnson and emerging krumpers like the impressive Dragon and Miss Prissy reveal heartache, split families and tragedy, so that the krumping moves are easily read as physical release and expressions of anger and alienation, artfully redirected. Rize doesn’t turn itself over to telling many personal stories, but with so many bodies gyrating and emotions taking flight, it doesn’t really need to.
The closest to an enclosed sequence occurs when Johnson hosts a clown vs. krump contest at the Great Western Forum, which plays out in raucous, sports-movie fashion, but is sent into unexpected tragedy once the victorious Johnson gets back home.
There’s a sense of a passing of the flame from Johnson to the likes of Dragon, and a rousing finale decorated in the style of a glossy music video hints at young starts in the making. LaChapelle thankfully avoids this gloss for most of “Rize,” opting instead for a stripped-down shooting approach more interested in the subject than showing off. Music tracks are mostly original, commenting on the new krumping culture.”
By Robert Koehler