You've probably heard of jukebox musicals-Broadway shows that are scored to the greatest hits of a band or singer that was big 20 years ago. Well, Roll Bounce is a jukebox movie, overflowing with seemingly every soul, funk and disco chestnut recorded during the 1970s. Name a hit song from that era and it's most likely on this soundtrack.
Whether on Broadway or the big screen, the jukebox approach to scoring has two advantages. First, it means that the producers don't have to bother with an original composer, which can save time and money. Second, and more important, hearing those old hits puts the audience in a nostalgic frame of mind, which often makes them more susceptible to swallowing narrative clichés. And Roll Bounce certainly serves up its fair share of those. In addition to the central Underdog vs. Top Dog storyline, the movie also features the well-worn Dead Mother subplot as well as the always-popular Dad Just Doesn't Get It conflict. It's clear from the get-go that all these various plot threads will work out precisely the way they always do.
The modest pleasures of Roll Bounce, then, lie mainly in the film's casual acceptance of its own unoriginality. Director Malcolm D. Lee (who previously helmed the very funny blaxploitation spoof Undercover Brother) knows he isn't reinventing the wheel, so he simply tries to cover this very familiar ground in as entertaining a manner as possible. For the most part, he succeeds. The audience I saw the film with was clearly having a good time, laughing and cheering in all the right places. Sure, you could take that as a depressing sign of how easily moviegoers can give in to pre-programmed films, but sometimes there's also something to be said for just sitting back and going with the flow.
Pint-sized rapper turned teen actor Bow Wow stars as Xavier or, as he's known around his South Side neighborhood, X. Every summer, X and his buddies spend their days getting their groove on at the local roller-skating rink. As the summer of '78 begins, however, their rink has gone bust, which means that the boys have to make the long trek up to the North Side, home of the famous Sweetwater roller rink. Although X and his crew were hot stuff on their home turf, Sweetwater already has a star-a preening showboater known as The Sweetness (Wesley Jonathan). It goes without saying that X and Sweetness are destined to square off at Sweetwater's annual skating competition.
Meanwhile, back at home, X's gruff father Curtis (Chi McBride) is getting used to being a single parent after his beloved wife passed away. As a result, his relationship with his son is going through a rough patch; Curtis thinks X should find a more productive hobby than roller-skating and X is upset at his father's lack of faith in him. So when X confronts Sweetness at the end of the picture, he's not just out to prove himself to the stuck-up North Side crowd, he's also proving himself to his dad.
As you can probably tell, most of the film's clichés come in the off-rink sequences; the scenes between Curtis and X in particular feel like they've been copied verbatim from every father/son melodrama ever made. To their credit, Bow Wow and McBride do try to make their confrontations sound fresh. McBride especially brings more shading to his character than the script demands, which makes it a little disappointing that Curtis' storyline is resolved in such a perfunctory manner. But Lee and screenwriter Norman Vance, Jr. know that audiences are mainly there to see some roller-skating, so they speed through the drama to reach the big finale, which takes up a good half-hour of screen time. It's time well-spent, though. The skating routines are a lot of fun to watch, filled with great choreography and backed by great tunes. And that's the secret of jukebox movies. It's amazing what kinds of clichés you'll forgive when they come scored to Kool & the Gang's "Hollywood Swinging."