Fashion photographer David LaChapelle, who is perhaps best known for directing J-Lo videos and Burger King commercials, makes a surprisingly capable feature directorial debut with his energetic documentary Rize, a film that is part social analysis and part music-video.
The movie begins with the introduction of Tommy the Clown, the patriarch and inventor of "clowning," whose silly, laid-back style of dance posturing and terrifying clown makeup quickly earned him a legion of followers outside of the birthday parties he entertains. Like almost all teen fads, clowning quickly spawned some 30 rival groups, not to mention a new style of dance, "krumping," which has recently enjoyed wide notice in music-videos (many of which were directed by LaChapelle).
Rize focuses on both styles of dance, and while LaChapelle tries to be objective, he clearly is more enamored with krumping, choosing to focus most of his talking-head interviews on the more violent krumpers who eschew Tommy the Clown's lackadaisical approach.
While recent press has consistently compared krumping with break-dancing, the two dances share hardly anything in common other than emerging from urban, black neighborhoods. Instead, krumping, with its aggressive posturing, shoving matches and adolescent angst, shares far more in common with another of the region's teen dances: the slam-dance of late-'70s Southern California hardcore. Like slam-dancing, krumping relies on the overall catharsis of group experience. In a variation on the '60s anthem, you better find somebody to shove.
While the potential violence may alienate some, LaChapelle shrewdly demonstrates that this is a way out for many teens in south-central Los Angeles. In a culture which places so much emphasis on sports, it is always remarkable when kids start their own scene to both uplift and represent themselves. As one teen wryly notes, "Not everyone is a football player." From mods and rockers to Goths and punks, nothing is more empowering for teenagers than to create their own movement.
Empowerment aside, in today's America in which everything, particularly youth culture, is for sale, krumping and clowning can be a way up the economic ladder. Indeed, LaChapelle has cast many of his interview subjects in the latest cowboy-chapped Christina Aguilera video. Welcome to McKrumping.
Rize is not without its flaws. Instead of using his subjects' source music, LaChapelle instead employs a loud, bass-thumping score to accompany the dancers' moves. One is left wondering if the teens are truly Dizzee Rascal aficionados or instead listen to music that is as original and novel as their dance moves.
And sadly, LaChapelle at one point compares krumping and clowning to seemingly unrelated African tribal dances. The dancers in the National Geographic stock footage share nothing in common with the Los Angeles teens other than skin color. The tribal dances are as similar to krumping and clowning as the landscape of sub-Saharan Africa is to south-central L.A. The result is as offensive as it is naïve. And the suggestion that this scene on the streets of Los Angeles is African undermines the documentary's principal theme, that krumping (like rap, punk and rock 'n' roll before it) is inherently American.