A reclamation and interpretation of a once-dismissed aspect of American film history
About the author
Kimberley Monteyne is currently teaching at the University of British Columbia and has also taught at New York University and the Chelsea College of Art (UK). Her work has appeared in Youth Culture in Global Cinema.
What happened to the American musical in the 1980s? It may have morphed, as some claim, into the pop-soundtrack-heavy Brat Pack movies, but no one was singing anymore. Even Footloose, Flashdance, and Dirty Dancing were strictly dance only. Where did the classic American musical go? One answer, argued by Kimberley Monteyne in her excellent book, Hip Hop on Film, is that the genre went underground.
Hip hop has been featured in movies for more than 30 years now, driving films such as Do the Right Thing, Boyz N the Hood, 8 Mile, and countless others, but Monteyne is drawn to a very specific cycle of films. Starting with Charlie Ahearn's drama-doc Wild Style (1983), she focuses on a handful of movies that surfaced with the breakdance craze of the mid-1980s. It's a niche group; only Wild Style and perhaps Beat Street (1984) are generally considered noteworthy, while the rest were mostly forgotten after their theatrical runs (though, apparently, 1984's Breakin' had better box office than that year's The Terminator). But Monteyne asserts that the cycle is a crucial missing gap in the history of urban African American cinema, more progressive than both the blaxploitation films that preceded them and the 1990s 'New Black Cinema' that followed.
Monteyne astutely broadens the discussion out from the hip hop movies into a wider consideration of 1980s movies, arguing that they offered a radically alternative image of youth culture. With scene after scene of black and Puerto Rican kids writing, breakdancing or making music, urban youth culture is depicted as positive and uniquely artistic. In contrast to the middle-class teens of, say, John Hughes's movies, the street breakers and rappers don't just consume pop culture, they are out there creating it. Monteyne also draws comparisons with classic Hollywood musicals, connecting the narrative tropes of Beat Street and Wild Style to old Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire movies. She illustrates how the structures of the earlier films are re-worked in the hip hop musicals, placing African American and Latino teenagers at the centre of their cinematic worlds.
The prose is intelligent, well researched (the pages on the riots that followed NYC screenings of Krush Groove are fascinating) and always eloquent. On the atrocious Razzie-nominated Body Rock (1984), for example, Monteyne accurately describes the film's cynical, exploitative nature, the irony in its preppy cast disdaining rappers who don't 'keep it real', and the Vanilla Ice-style play-acting of former soap star Lorenzo Lamas as 'Chilly D'. Maybe, just once, she could borrow a well-worn phrase from the hip hop lexicon: the movie is wack.
Keeping it real: Wild Style,
Sight and Sound