DAVID LACHAPELLE'S "Rize" documents the South Central Los Angeles-rooted salvational subcultures of clowning and krumping. Lost already? Then think back to 1982's "Wild Style," many people's initial introduction to the Bronx-centered hip-hop culture of rappers, DJs, break dancers and taggers. The visually stunning "Rize" is a specifically focused introduction to a hyperkinetic style of hip-hop dance that's far more athletic, and aggressive, than break dancing. In fact, to outsiders, krumping may look like a mix of underground street fighting, moshing and holiness church spirit possession. But what "Rize" reveals is that in disenfranchised communities beset by multiple blights of poverty, drugs and gang violence, there have always been stubborn, heroic artistic responses. This is simply one of the most dramatic and one of the most inspiring.
The aptly named "movement" dates to the early '90s when ex-con Tommy Johnson reinvented himself as Tommy the Clown (complete with rainbow-colored Afro wig and clown makeup) and began entertaining at birthday parties with an act that included exuberant, exaggerated dance moves. Entranced youngsters began to mimic him, and pretty soon Tommy's Hip Hop Clown Academy was producing a wave of copyclowns, mostly young men, who painted their faces and formed "clown" groups to compete against one another -- a highly energized alternative to gang activities and team sports that became a way of life, and in many cases a way to life, for those involved.
As often happens in youth subcultures, clowning evolved, first to stripper dancing, a raunchy subset better suited to a pole or cage, and then to krumping, in which the first wave of clowners developed a harder, more cathartic freestyle form that seemed to tap more deeply into the pain and frustration of their social circumstances (even the painted faces became more warriorlike) as well as their hopes, aspirations and needs.
But krumping is not just rapidly flailing appendages and spastic tremors that suggest a body undergoing electric shock therapy or the accelerated shenanigans of cartoon characters such as Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. (Note the film's disclaimer: "Nothing has been speeded up in any way.") It's ferocious dance combat, an exaggerated variation on old-school jazz cutting contests, rappers freestyling, even Amateur Night at the Apollo, with roots in traditional African dance and ritual, a connection briefly but effectively underscored when LaChapelle juxtaposes South Central footage and vintage black-and-white footage from Africa. (One krumper refers to it as a cultural "imprint.")
"Rize" traces the form's evolution from "krump sessions" in people's homes and back yards to playgrounds, streets and pretty much any open space offering room for movement and an audience, to Tommy the Clown's informal competitive "circles" that grow into annual Battle Zones that fill the Great Western Forum arena, pitting teams of clowns and krumpers against one another in a cacophonous swirl of posturing, put-downs and body quakes, with winners and losers chosen through gladiator-arena-style acclaim. The deeper stakes are sanity, survival and, in some cases, spiritual redemption.
The stars of "Rize" are the dancers themselves, from Tommy (who is deservedly proprietary and suffers for it) and young krump pioneers Lil C, Tight Eyes and Dragon (now studying to be a minister), to a pair of battling ladies, La Nina and the utterly charismatic Ms. Prissy. All are astounding dancers, not to mention in astonishing shape, but the most impressive thing is their common resolve and strength of character in the toughest of circumstances. A somber reminder of just how tough those circumstances can be: 15-year-old dancer Quinesha "Lil Dimples" Dunford, killed along with a 13-year-old friend in a random drive-by shooting.
LaChapelle, best known as a fashion photographer and music video director, discovered krumping while shooting Christina Aguilera's "Dirrty," and his incorporation of it in that video was the art form's first national exposure. LaChapelle's approach is generally straightforward, only occasionally giving into color-saturated, sweat-drenched artiness. For him, "Rize" is part valentine, part invitation to the dance.
RIZE (PG-13, 85 minutes) -- Contains suggestive content, drug references, profanity and brief nudity. Area theaters.