Hip-hop has celluloid in its blood, from the countless song lyrics that reference movies and iconic film characters to the widespread sampling and interpolation of movie dialogue, film scores and soundtracks. It stretches from rap-video homages (Busta Rhymes’ nods to Coming to America in his video for “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See” and to The Last Dragon in his “Dangerous” clip are two high-water marks) to the baby-daddy status of movie gangsters in relation to hip-hop gangstas. Then there’s hip-hop’s impact on the movies, which includes both the influence of its “urban aesthetics” on film style and the number of rappers who have ridden the beat to crossover dreams and forged acting careers. (The Negro caucus of SAG might still be a little salty about the latter.)
Cinefamily’s monthlong hip-hop film retrospective “Word Is Born: Hip-Hop at the Movies, 1979-1984” places certified b-boy classics (Wild Style, Beat Street, Style Wars, Breakin’) alongside cool and illuminating rarities that are the true jewels in the series. As an added bonus, there will be postscreening DJ sets from the likes of West Coast cult legend Arabian Prince and L.A.’s own international b-boy (and co-owner of Stones Throw Records), Peanut Butter Wolf.
If there is one “don’t miss” title in this smart, ambitious survey (curated by programmer Gabriele Caroti), it’s the 1984 documentary Beat This! A Hip-Hop History (screening on September 25). Made by director Dick Fontaine for the BBC with the intention of introducing hip-hop culture to British audiences, the film is narrated in rhyme, has thick sci-fi overtones in the camp-but-cool appearances of the legendary Afrika Bambaataa, is filled with insightful cameos from a who’s who of hip-hop (Kool Herc, Sha Rock, Arthur Baker), comes loaded with film clips and news footage that would cost a small fortune in clearance fees today and, while wildly entertaining, doesn’t fail to make salient political points. “Hip-hop doesn’t belong to New York, L.A. or London. It comes from devastation,” Herc remarks as he drives through an early ’80s Bronx that looks like a bombed-out war zone. Another highlight — or lowlight, depending on your point of view — is an interview with British cultural impresario/opportunist Malcolm McLaren, whom Fontaine was reportedly forced to include in the documentary against his wishes. He makes his feelings on the matter crystal clear by introducing McLaren to the viewer right after the film’s narrator observes that hip-hop’s popularity quickly made it a prime target for “culture vultures.” McLaren then opens his mouth and immediately lives down to the scornful tag.
With its grainy, gritty imagery, its leaps from music videos to street breakdancing performances, and its seamless segues from clips of Hollywood films to talking-head commentaries, Beat This! transcends its quotidian nonfiction components and feels almost experimental. Still, it doesn’t have the frantic MTV-style editing that almost anything to do with hip-hop or Negroes has nowadays. It’s thoughtful, playful and trusts the audience’s intelligence to keep up as it winds through disparate cultural and political references.
That radical feeling is pushed even further in Manfred Kirchhelmer’s exquisite Stations of the Elevated. A 45-minute meditation on graffiti, which is scored to the music of Charles Mingus, Stations unspools for long, glorious stretches without dialogue, following the rails alongside its stars — colorfully tagged subway trains — as they glide through both urban terrain and lush countryside. As the camera seesaws its attention from exterior shots of the trains to their various surroundings, assorted questions are gently raised on the ways in which public space is used, and how the “outlaw” expression of graffiti and the world of corporate advertising influence one another. One of the best moments in the film involves a group of adolescent boys watching the trains go by, offering their critiques of the tagged images they see. From the group pipes up a youthful, bass-free voice of authority, “That one was all right. Wasn’t nothing special. The idea was good.”
Stations is filled with footage of massive crumbling buildings, row after row of empty storefronts and kids playing among debris — all demonstrations of what a devastated infrastructure and political indifference can do to neighborhoods. It’s old, pre-Giuliani New York, the place of rampant crime, poverty and fearful imaginings. Nearly identical images appear in Gary Weis’ riveting 1979 documentary, 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s, about gangs in the late ’70s South Bronx; and in Charles Ahearn’s The Deadly Art of Survival, also made in 1979 and on which Ahearn cut his teeth before making the seminal 1983 film Wild Style. Both films exude a kind of innocence now. As one gang member in Blocks rattles off a list of the kinds of weaponry commonly found on the streets of New York in the ’70s, the low-grade artillery would make today’s school kids scoff. Deadly Art, with its bad acting and transparently weak fight choreography, is a hoot — the series' guilty pleasure.
WORD IS BORN: HIP-HOP AT THE MOVIES, 1979-1984 | Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre | Thursdays at 8 p.m., through September 25 | www.cinefamily.org