Verbal impact of a poetry slam
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, June 10, 2011
Set during the lead-up to — and running of — a 2008 Chicago competition for teenage spoken-word artists, the documentary “Louder Than a Bomb” has a lot in common with such documentaries as “Spellbound” and “Mad Hot Ballroom”: charismatic, if obsessed, kids and nail-biting suspense.
Like those earlier tales of pluck, grit and spunk, the film is powered by the steam — and the enormous appeal — of its young, hyper-verbal and multiracial protagonists, who include two African American boys; a half-Indian, half-African American girl; and a Jewish boy with a ponytail halfway down his back. They’re charmers, all of them. And at times they’ll blow you away with their dedication to their art form — a hybrid of rap, theatrical monologue, word jazz, stand-up comedy, evangelical testifying and confession.
The contest is called Louder Than a Bomb, but the tone of the writing is sometimes light. In one performance, teenager Nate Marshall jokingly calls himself “Langston Huge.” It’s a very funny, and telling, line — a rap-like boast that places him, accurately, in both the literary lineage and a long line of hip-hop artists who have cracked wise to make a larger point. That is, poetry can be a kind of salvation, a way to bigger and better things.
More often the subject matter is heavy: drive-by shootings; bigotry and assimilation; an estranged father. It’s raw and emotional stuff. The highest praise one spoken-word artist can give another doesn’t concern simile or alliteration but whether your work is, as the pint-size, ponytailed Adam Gottlieb says of another competitor, “real.”
And real this poetry is.
That is true not merely because what we hear evokes the street or because it conveys authentic emotion. It’s real because it has intrinsic value.
Participants in this poetry contest repeat a mantra over and over throughout the film, reinforcing the idea that winning isn’t everything: “The point is not the points; the point is the poetry.”
But as filmmakers Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel make clear, the real point isn’t the poetry either. “The world is bigger than a poetry slam,” someone observes, underscoring the notion that there are larger lessons than meter and metaphor. Those lessons include collaboration, respect, hard work, commitment and the ability to make something beautiful out of something ugly.
The real value of poetry — of the contest itself — is not revealed until the closing credits, when we see the impressive list of colleges that the movie’s four subjects have gone on to.
Contains some profanity.