The early 1980s was an exciting time for music. Hip hop was fast emerging as a new and exciting genre of music. Breakdancing was a part of this scene as a form of expression and how it made one feel while listening to it while also acting as a way of settling disputes. For years it had remained underground but 1984 marked the year when both hip hop and breakdancing broke into the mainstream with Breakin’, its sequel, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, and Beat Street. In their own way, each are a fantastic time capsule of their times in all of their cheesy (and in Beat Street’s case not so cheesy) glory. Naturally, the major Hollywood studios had no idea how to depict hip hop culture on film so it was up to fledgling independent companies like Cannon and Orion to take a shot with varying degrees of success.
Coming out a year after the influential hip hop film Wild Style (1983), Beat Street was the East Coast answer to Breakin’ by being grittier, edgier and therefore not as successful but definitely more authentic. This is immediately evident from the opening credits, which feature a montage of the dirty, graffiti-heavy streets of the Bronx juxtaposed with stills of the main characters as the title track by Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious 5 plays on the soundtrack. This lets you know that Beat Street is going to be as faithful a representation of life on the streets and New York hip hop culture as is possible with a fictional film.
Shot on the dirty, grungy, pre-Giuliani streets of New York City during what looks like a very cold, snowbound winter, it juggles several characters and storylines. There’s Kenny Kirkland (Guy Davis), an up-and-coming rapper with the DJ moniker “Double K” who spins at parties in abandoned buildings. He’s friends with Ramon (Jon Chardiet), a gifted graffiti artist who spends his time “bombing” trains with his signature style under the moniker of “Ramo.” His dad doesn’t understand his son’s artistic ambitions and this fuels the headstrong young man’s frustration with his lot in life. It doesn’t help that he can’t support his girlfriend (Saundra Santiago) and their baby but instead of turning to a life of crime, Ramon makes an honest go of working a regular job in order to provide for his family.
Kenny’s younger brother Lee (Robert Taylor) is an aspiring breakdancer who does his thing on the streets with his crew for spare change. Kenny dreams of DJing at the Roxy, a slick, hip club awash in neon and people clad in all sorts of vivid attire. It is a fantastic looking place that really captures the scene at the time. Everyone was coming off the tail-end of the disco era and hip hop was emerging from the underground ready to take over. There is even a memorable dance battle between the legendary Rock Steady Crew and The New York City Breakers that features some incredible breakdancing — definitely the film’s showstopper. What is so striking about this scene is that there is very little editing and director Stan Lathan employs long shots so we can see these guys dance and show off their awesome style.
The filmmakers even introduce a bit of class warfare with the introduction of Tracy Carlson (Rae Dawn Chong), a music student and composer at a local college. Kenny admires her from afar but she ends up inviting Lee to audition for a television program about dancing. When Lee and Kenny arrive at the school, interrupting a rehearsal, they find out that Lee’s performance won’t be televised, which understandably pisses off Kenny. However, Kenny becomes attracted to Tracy despite their socio-economical differences and for a few minutes the film downshifts into a romantic subplot.
The cast of unknowns, including a young Rae Dawn Chong (who had appeared in Quest for Fire three years before), add to the authenticity because we have no pre-conceived notions of any of them. So, we immediately accept these people in their respective roles. Also, their lack of experience and polish gives the performances a real, raw quality as if they just came off the street and stepped in front of the camera as themselves. This is evident in the few scenes we get of Kenny and Lee’s home life. Their strict but caring mother (Mary Alice) tries to keep her sons out of jail and avoid the fate of her eldest child that died on the streets. At the time it was rare to see a film populated almost entirely by African Americans and Latinos. Beat Street refuses to water down its content for mainstream consumption but rather comes across as a film made for and by hip hop fans.
Unlike Breakin’, this is how the hip hop scene really looked and sounded back in the day. Parties take place in the basements of burnt-out buildings in the slums of the city. These guys are all young, poor and hungry to make it out of the ghetto anyway they can. Beat Street also trumps Breakin’ in the number of cameos by pioneers of the genre, featuring the likes of DJ Kool Herc, Kool Mo Dee, Doug E. Fresh, Afrika Bambaataa and Melle Mel. This also results in a great soundtrack that shows many of the influences on early hip hop: calypso, salsa, jazz — all thrown into the mix.
Beat Street began as a series of articles written by Steven Hager for the Village Voice. In the 1970s and early ‘80s, he researched hip hop culture in the South Bronx. His articles were based on interviews he had conducted with rappers like Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash. He eventually adapted it into screenplay, which he described as a “slice of life drama and a vehicle for showing some authentic hip hop performances from the golden age of the first generation,” entitled Looking for the Perfect Beat. In 1983, legendary musician Harry Belafonte was getting ready to go on a European concert tour when Hager came to his office in New York and showed him his Voice articles along with the script. Belafonte had grown up in the Bronx and was fascinated with the hip hop culture that came out of the neighborhood. He wanted to make a film that was “not all about the down and out and never to rise again. If anything, this hip-hop culture is the phoenix out of the ashes.” Hager sold the script to him and the musician promptly ditched most of the content except for the character’s names. He then brought in Andy Davis (The Fugitive), David Gilbert and Paul Goulding to do a complete rewrite.
In January 1984, Belafonte and co-producer David V. Picker auditioned hundreds of teenagers at the Roxy Dance Club. From these sessions, 16-year-old Robert Taylor of the Freeze to Rock breakdancing crew was cast as Lee. According to Belafonte, the teenager came from the streets and “had 39 raps against him – out of school, knife fights, carrying dope.” Principal photography soon began afterwards with Andy Davis directing but after a week he was fired by Belafonte and Picker. They contacted veteran television director Stan Lathan (Fame) on a Friday and the following Monday he took over directing duties on the film. According to Lathan, the producers “didn’t want it to be an unrealistic, Hollywood kind of film, and they didn’t want the kids to be alienated by someone who didn’t understand the culture.”
The reviews for Beat Street were mostly negative. In his review for the Globe and Mail, Jay Scott wrote, “History may not change but it sure does accelerate: it's been less than a year since Wild Style, and already the time is ripe for the Spinal Tap producers to get together for Spinal Tap II: Breaking Breakin'.” The New York Times’ Vincent Canby wrote, “The film's melodrama adequately supports the nearly nonstop music and dancing, but the film itself is best understood as a trailer for the soundtrack album.” However, in her review for the Washington Post, Rita Kempley wrote, “The movie hails the ethnic truce won by such youth in the South Bronx and spreads the word to other trouble spots. Its splashy melodramatic finale looks like Fame, but it feels like a new Woodstock.”
As far as breakdancing films go you could do a lot worse than Beat Street. If that seems like faint praise it isn’t meant to be. Beat Street is everything that the Breakin’ films aren’t: gritty, cold, grey with characters that swear and even die with the finale a bittersweet one tinged with melancholy and also hope. It has aged surprisingly well and serves as a fascinating snapshot of East Coast hip hop in the early ‘80s, during a time when people settled their beefs on the mic or by dance battles. Beat Street is also a more ambitious film than others that came out at the time, juggling several storylines populated by an unknown cast of African American and Latino actors. It is also a celebration of street culture that argues DJing, breakdancing and graffiti are legit forms of artistic expression.