Rize (2005)

(On DVD, June 2006) There is a lot to like about David LaChapelle’s debut film, a documentary about the clowning/krumping dance movement. The advantages of tracking such recent cultural phenomenons is that it’s easy to reach back to the original movers and shakers, which in this case means spending time with “Tommy The Clown”, who first defined clowning. As with most things involving the American black community, there is a huge sociocultural element to Rize, and the film never shies away from it, telling once more the story of the ghettoized blacks of Los Angeles, and how clowning/krumping can be a way to rise above day-to-day life. (In a striking segment, LaChapelle reaches deep into archival footage to show African tribal dances, which share a strong similarity to the “modern” dance movement studied by the film.) When Rize truly gets into its subject, it’s gripping stuff: The “Battle Zone” sequence has a strong narrative drive, and its conclusion is the type of thing that breaks your heart. The dance footage itself is nothing short of beautiful, especially when LaChapelle breaks out the mineral oil for some final staged sequences near Los Angeles River. “The footage in this movie has not been sped up in any way.” the film tells us, which is ironic because it’s often most astonishing when it’s slowed down. Alas, if Rize has a problem, it’s that it could have used more narrative cohesion. Granted, the whole city of Los Angeles often seems like an alien culture to me, but still: I often felt as if the film needed commentary, context and explanations. (I’m not sure that this review is coherent, but I can guarantee it would have been even less so if it hadn’t been for Wikipedia.) Yet Rize remains fascinating, even when it’s difficult to figure out what’s happening: the wonders of pure energy.

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