I liken “Beat Street” to “Saturday Night Fever” in where both films, set in the Bronx, feature very talented youths with troubled home lives trying to fulfill their promise and chase the American dream. While “Beat Street” is nowhere near as timeless as the former film, director Stan Lathan’s drama is an entertaining, if exaggerated look at life in the Bronx, and the culture that would eventually die with the decade. The film produced by Harry Belafonte doesn’t have the same committee constructed, consumer pandering aesthetic that the “Step Up” movies do. But for all intents and purposes it tend to shine the light on actual minorities living in the Bronx, some of whom can barely make rent, but still drive themselves on their love for their work.
Though “Breakin'” is often the more notable and discussed cinematic exploration of break dancing and hip hop, “Beat Street” is infinitely more superior. It not only takes the culture more seriously, but actually tries to depict the art of break dancing as something about expression and unleashing stress about living a life of poverty in the slums of New York. Even if you can’t appreciate the inherent charm of the campy musical numbers, and silly mystery of who the enigmatic tagger Spits is, you have to appreciate the context of the time director Lathan’s film was released. It’s quite fascinating watching the back drop of the Bronx in 1984 as our characters spend most their time running around subways and making the streets their own domains.
There’s also some wonderful cameos from hip hop royalty like Jazzy Jay, Doug E. Fresh, Bernard Fowler, Melle Mel, Afrika Bambaataa, Kool Herc, Brenda Starr, and Kool Moe Dee. Lathan’s film is also oddly identical to “8 Mile” in where our characters are chasing their passions despite the reality of life weighing them down. Though the film tries to avoid melodrama at every turn, it still manages to succeed as a solid coming of age drama about four young men trying to achieve their dreams before the stark grasp of age and obligations eventually begin to weigh them down. Guy Davis is very good as Kenny “Double K” Kirkland, a South Bronx hip hop DJ and performer who wants to hit the big time, there’s his little brother, a brilliant break dancer named Lee, and Kenny’s best friend Ramon.
Ramon is a side character, but given the most dramatic weight as he is committed to his passion as a graffiti artist, but is tortured by a dad who considers his passion a waste of time, all the while he has a girlfriend and newborn son in desperate need of his attention. Kenny is experiencing a surge in popularity with his work, and is trying to rein in his brother Lee who is very much on the verge of falling in the wrong crowd. Kenny is anxious to aspire for good things for him, especially with the constant reminder of a sibling he and his brother lost years before. When the pair meets Rae Dawn Chong’s character Tracy in a club, they fall in with her upper crest class of performance arts students, all of whom find the art of break dancing fascinating.
Kenny and Tracy form an instant bond with one another and face the eventual realization of their vast differences in class and education, all the while Kenny begins to struggle for new ways to master his music. Rae Dawn Chong gives a strong supporting performance, but her romance with main character Kenny brings the movie down and the pacing slows to a screeching halt much too often. Not to mention the tragic finale feels forced and contrived. That said, “Beat Street” holds up pretty well as one of the few hip hop musicals and a neat time capsule when hip hop was growing and still on the fringes of the mainstream.