Agroup of African American teenagers squeezes into a narrow parking lot bordered by a chain-link fence. The camera elbows its way into the crowd, focusing on a young man, his bare, muscled torso pitching back and forth and his arms flailing in circles as though trying to balance atop his pulsing, shaking hips. He tightens his face, almost closing his eyes, and hurls himself into the fence, still dancing as the group yells at him, "Louder!"
The teenagers are engaged in a dance known as "krumping," the subject of director David LaChapelle's documentary "Rize," a film worth seeing both for its visual beauty and its insight into a little-known form. The movie focuses on the dance's evolution in South Central Los Angeles in the early '90s, when Tommy the Clown (all of the film's subjects are identified only by their performing names) began playing the birthday-party circuit as the "hippest clown ever," dancing extremely fast movement partially borrowed from strip clubs. (The speed of krumping is so unbelievable that LaChapelle begins the film by noting that none of the footage has been sped up.) Gaining a following in the neighborhood, Tommy orchestrated group dance sessions as an alternative to gang life.
More than a decade later, krumping, with its detailed face-painting drawn from its clowning roots, has become an L.A. phenomenon. "Rize" follows Tommy, the dancers who still perform with him, and those who have created their own crews, climaxing in "Battle Zones," contests between krumpers.
Like any good dance film, "Rize" lets the dance itself speak, the movement acting as a kinesthetic illustration for the film's story. Krumper Lil C stumbles describing his father's suicide, one of several traumatic episodes in his past, but then LaChapelle cuts to Lil C dancing on the beach. The camera focuses on the lone dancer; as his arms raise in silhouette, he seems to release years of anger and frustration, saying in movement what he could not with words.
The sky behind Lil C throbs a brilliant blue, just one instance of a glossy, oversaturated effect certainly attributable to LaChapelle's work in music videos. But, at times, the overt slickness grates against the grittiness of the film's subject matter.
Krumpers share much with the South Bronx break dancers of the '70s, who also gained fame via movies. As with break dancing, krumping is integrally tied to a particular place. The film begins with aerial shots of South Central, first during the 1965 Watts riots, then the 1992 riots. The confluence of racism, violence and poverty in the neighborhood visibly wear upon the teenagers, krumping becoming their means of escape and expression. Throughout the film, LaChapelle excels at intertwining the dance and locale, making the two as inseparable onscreen as they are in real life.
Only in an extended dance sequence spliced with footage of traditional African dance done in a village setting does LaChapelle's thoughtful eye go astray. The footage appears without acknowledgment of tribe or occasion, not receiving the same respect for its surroundings and artistic detail afforded krumping.
"Rize" presents myriad of issues surrounding krumping (so many, in fact, that it causes the film to unravel a bit after the Battle Zone climax): the dance's hypersexuality -- one young girl demonstrates the "stripper dance," standing legs apart, bottom jiggling wildly; the role of religion -- several of the dancers are born-again Christians, while krumping's transcendent parking lot moments (known as "getting krumped") mirror Sunday morning services; and the skill required to do the constantly evolving dance.
Rize (84 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for adult situations, brief nudity, drug references and profanity.