BEHIND THE BREAKING
by Pamela Lewis
published December 12, 2008
released by Arts Alliance
Their names are straight from hip-hop central casting: Zero-9; Crazy Grandma; Knuklehead. Their countries read like the United Nations roll-call: France; South Korea; Japan, Brazil, and – don’t
even think about leaving it out – the U.S.A.
Planet B-Boy, the
newly-released DVD about the feverish and testosterone-driven hip-hop culture, chronicles the preparations leading up to the Battle of the
Year competition where the top breaker crews from 18 countries vie for money and hip-hop immortality with their best headspins and other way
As much of a brief historical overview of hip-hop, B-Boy also acquaints us with some
of the main breakers, such as Chris, the tough-talking member of the American crew Knucklehead, and Katsu of Osaka, Japan, who works for his
family’s green tea shop between practicing with his crew, called Ichigeki. Through these
characters, we learn that b-boying is often about connecting with others when traditional forms are either strained or non-existent, about
finding meaning in life when meaning is elusive.
In its early years, hip-hop was dismissed as Not Real Dance, the
illegitimate offspring of ghetto life. But its made-on-the-spot resourcefulness, making its own
rules spontaneously and its ability to impart power to its practitioners, helped hip-hop to branch out from its limitations.
As Thomas Hergenrother, organizer of the first International
Breakdance Competition in 1990, explains, his desire was to show that breakdancing was more than just a fad and to release the dance form from
its position of exploitation and raise it to a legitimate art form.
The film’s effective editing showcases both the rehearsals and the crew members; at various points, we see individual b-boys executing extraordinary moves against equally compelling scenery, which is some of the
finest cinematography of the film. In one poetic sequence, a French crew member, putting down
his breaks against the twilight-draped backdrop of the illuminated Eiffel Tower, makes us understand immediately why the French crews have
the reputation as the most elegant dancers, the owners of a superior esthetic sensibility.
The road to hip-hop glory is not always smooth, however. Traveling alongside the
film’s primary story is the ages-old tale of father-son conflict experienced by members from countries where family honor and filial respect
contradict and conflict with the b-boy lifestyle. Katsu’s dad, who died three years ago of a
liver tumor, wanted him to finish school and keep dancing as a hobby. They did not speak much
when the father was still alive; but Katsu, before leaving Japan to take part in the Big Battle in Germany, visits his father’s grave vowing
to enjoy every moment of the experience because he knows his father will be watching over him.
There is the Korean member of the crew Last for One, for whom dancing is the ultimate antidote to a capitalist society, and whose
father asserts that we cannot take our wealth with us when we die, but we take our honor, and that bragging of one’s son is a sign of
foolishness. By the end of the film, it is this father who will experience the greatest
There’s Lil Kev, the youngest of all the crew members, somewhere in the vicinity of 10 years old, who is one of the most
breathtaking b-boys. The tow-headed breaker and his mother, members of what is commonly called
the Français de la souche (the European French, as opposed to the immigrants), live in one of
Paris’ banlieues, the inelegant suburbs on the capital’s periphery that you never see in the
glossy travel catalogues. Because of hip-hop’s gangsta image and its black community origins,
Lil Kev’s mother strongly opposed the activity for her young son, and she openly admits her racism that informed her attitudes. Seeing the discipline her son has acquired from practicing, she has now softened her stance.
The Big Battle day is worth the wait: all the preening, final touches on routines,
and prayers for luck are there, no different from what the Kirov or Alvin Ailey goes through before hitting the stage. The headspins are terrifying to behold; the freeze poses are sharply defined; the outfits are “bad” (in
the good way); the energy is high. The Koreans, the ones to beat, and perceived as better than
the French, want to show that they are the premiere force in the b-boy universe. They overwhelm
with big action moves and teamwork. Lil Kev, swung from member to member in one sequence,
shows off Gallic elegance, Gallic panache. Sly
stepping, frenetic spins and hand dancing are the gifts from the Americans.
Full of heart and respect for its subjects, Planet B-Boy provides entertainment and
thoughtfulness in full measure. We want to know how this story will turn out, who will win and
what they will do once they have. As one crew member puts it, “Regardless of the outcome, we
put our true selves out there.” It is worth watching how those selves are put out there, in
all their energy, spirit and humanity.
pamelalewis @ stageandcinema.com