Resident DVD Reviewer
A DVD REVIEW: BEAT STREET (MGM/Orion)
Boy, does this musical film bring back memories. For those of you who never really grew up in the inner city area in or around New York City during the 1980s, you wouldn't really understand the appeal of this film -- a time when "break dancing gangs" decided to fight with their dancing instead of their fists, when such "gangs" or "crews" ran rampant throughout the boroughs of New York City, when graffiti artists were actually considered talented artists. Stan Lathan's Beat Street was the East Coast "answer" to the West Coast based Breakin', which explored this break dancing phenomenon on the West Coast which exploded around the time it did in New York, yet with a different flair and style. For some reason, I was always a sucker for Breakin', Breakin 2: Electric Boogaloo and, of course, Beat Street. I was exposed to Beat Street from first catching it on New York's channel 7 (ABC) during their Saturday Night "Late Night Movie" feature one evening, and I was immediately hooked, grabbing a blank VHS tape and recording it, but of course with pausing the VCR with each commercial break. I must have played that tape to death, until the colors of the image were actually warped -- that's how much I seemed to love this unbelievably cheesy picture, produced and heavily influenced by Harry Belafonte. I also had taped the version without the vulgarity that runs rampant in this picture because it was from TV.
Because it was originally an Orion release, Beat Street was actually one of the titles that MGM resurrected in their takeover of the now-defunct studio for DVD release; unfortunately, the packaging is horrible -- with awful artwork depicting Rae Dawn Chong's smiling face up front and the rest of the cast behind her with cheesy logo lettering for the film's title -- what MGM SHOULD have done was use the film's original artwork for the DVD release, which depicted the words "BEAT STREET" in a city skyline-type design.
Oh well. I suppose fans -- if there are any others out there other than yours truly -- should be happy that this title actually made it to DVD. Lathan, with technical assistance from Belafonte, tells the story of a group of friends growing up in a poverty-stricken area of the Bronx, New York, but it's a real look into the world that was the Bronx back then when break dancing and hip hop music was at its peak; there is a very real portrait being painted here. Disc Jockey Kenny "Double K" Kirkland (Guy Davis) spins records for neighborhood parties, and one day hopes to make it big as a headlining DJ for a major New York club such as the Roxy or Burning Spear. His younger brother Lee is a member of "Beat Street," a break dancing crew whose main adversaries are "The Bronx Rockers." The rest of "Double K"'s friends -- Charlie, who is the brain behind marketing Kenny as a headlining DJ and Ramo, a talented Latin American graffiti artist who makes scrawling artwork on the sides of New York City subway trains his main passion in life -- are almost their own little "crew" in their own way, and all seem inseparable.
Charlie spends most of the film trying to get major gigs for Kenny so he can become a well-known DJ, and many of the scenes in some of the New York City clubs of the times are actually quite amusing; there is a sequence inside the Roxy, which was a major night spot in New York back then, where the Bronx Rockers and Beat Street have a break dancing "battle" in the middle of the dance floor, and to watch the people dancing in the costumes they had on are simply eye-poppingly amusing and even borders on insulting to watch. This was an era of clubbing in which anything went, clothes, hair and color wise, and it becomes easily evident with this once scene at the Roxy. The break dancing competition is actually the focal point of the scene, and perhaps the film, as it really is kind of amazing to see these kids battling it out on a dance floor with break dancing moves instead of killing each other with knives. It is at the end of this scene that Rae Dawn Chong (Commando, The Principal), who has already caught the eye of Kenny at the club, approaches Kenny's brother Lee to tell him he is a great break dancer and would like him to show up at the college she teaches at to consider having him break dance in a show they are putting together. When Kenny, Lee and his friends discover, after Lee auditions for them and the video tape it, that Lee is not going to be in their show, Kenny becomes outraged and bad blood sits between him and Chong, which is a problem because they already have a "thing" for each other.
Chong confronts Kenny in his home while he is working on mixing new music as a DJ, and wants him to give her the videotape back that they took during Lee's audition. It is here that the romance begins, believe it or not, as Kenny takes Chong to the underground catacombs of the New York City subway tunnels where Lee is helping Ramo and his graffiti crew put up some new "burners" on the walls of a subway station. The Ramo character is also developed deeply here, as he is struggling with a woman he has a child with because they have no money, his constant fights with his father, and the fact that a graffiti "artist" nowhere as talented as he is has been scrawling his name -- "Spit" -- over all of his work on trains and walls. The romance scenes in this "break dancing film" get a bit sappy, such as when Chong and Davis become closer, and when Ramo's girlfriend is brought to a renovated apartment in a burned-out tenement in the Bronx where it's the only place Ramo could take her to "escape" from their lives -- but there is a real element of what life was like in these neighborhoods of New York City especially during this time period, and Lathan captures this expertly amidst the backdrop of a break dancing and hip hop music hysteria.
In the meantime, Charlie is still trying to help Kenny become a headlining superstar DJ (really for his own selfish money making reasons) and then a break comes -- Kenny gets a chance to DJ at The Burning Spear, a popular club in the city after their house DJ has his hand smashed in a window by his little brother. Around this time, the Roxy nightclub is holding auditions for a New Year's Eve show, and Charlie uses a clever idea to get the owner of the club to hear Kenny's DJ skills. He informs him that Kenny is the "main man" of the owner of The Burning Spear, and tells the owner of the Roxy that if he wants to see Kenny in action, he better be at The Burning Spear that Saturday night. The owner arrives, and makes a deal with Kenny to perform on New Year's Eve for the Roxy because he is so impressed with his DJ skills. The film then flips to yet another break dancing battle between Beat Street and the Bronx Rockers (the Rockers actually "beat" Beat Street in their last battle at the Roxy; the way these contests are judged in terms of who wins and who loses is debatable) as they meet in a subway station and immediately "throw down" into a dancing battle with a song from the film's soundtrack, "Battle Cry," blasting from a portable radio. The cops are called, and Kenny's brother Lee is one of the kids arrested.
Kenny's mother bails Lee out of jail, but Kenny is having problems of his own. He is suspecting Chong of having feelings for the older man who she works with for the production of her college's show, and he doesn't know if he trusts her. This all comes to a culmination at the climax of the film, when Kenny and Ramo are throwing graffiti up on a brand-new white subway train at the same time Chong is having her show at the college, and suddenly Ramo runs into the guy he's been after all along: "Spit" -- the graffiti writer who has been writing all over Ramo's work on every train and subway station wall. Kenny and Ramo catch "Spit" painting over the graffiti they just put up on this new white train, and enraged, a Ramo chases down "Spit" through the subway tunnel until disaster strikes. As the men arrive at a station platform, Spit sprays paint into Ramo's eyes, and the two men fall onto the train tracks, immediately killing them both.
The news of Ramo's death shocks all of Kenny's friends and his brother, and instead of doing a straight DJ gig at the Roxy that New Year's Eve, Kenny decides to turn the evening into a "memoriam" for Ramo with Melle Mel and the Furious Five, a Harlem gospel choir, break dancers and professional dancers who all participate in the film's final onstage scene.
Like I said, if you were not raised during these "break dancing days" -- especially around the New York City inner urban areas -- you just wouldn't understand or appreciate the appeal of this film, which plays almost like Saturday Night Fever but with break dancing and hip hop music of the era -- Beat Street is indeed a "time piece" showcasing a certain chunk of fashion, music and lifestyle in New York much like Saturday Night Fever did with the disco scene in Brooklyn, New York.
As aforementioned, the "revamped" artwork MGM chose for this title is absolutely atrocious compared to the original "city skyline" art theme, so let me skip to the technicals of this rather bare bones affair from MGM; considering the almost non-existent fan base of this picture, there is no surprise there has not been any Special Edition of any kind, nor do I ever expect one.
1:85:1 WIDESCREEN TRANSFER ENHANCED FOR 16X9 DISPLAYS; STANDARD VERSION MODIFIED TO FIT THE SCREEN
This was a "flipper" from MGM, and before running everything on my 55" Mitsubishi display, I had run the Pan and Scan side of this disc; after viewing the 16X9-enhanced widescreen side, I can say that this is probably the best this title will ever look on any media, especially considering the snowy, washed-out VHS version I had to sit through for years. With no letterboxing present due to the 1:85:1 encoding, this transfer was nowhere near reference grade -- grain, dirt and noise pop up in many scenes, especially darker ones, but this may be film elements MGM had to work with to restore this to DVD from Orion's vaults. But as quickly as that grain and dirt pops up, it suddenly disappears in other scenes, making Beat Street almost look like a modern-day film shot in digital the colors and image gets so striking. But these moments don't last for long, and there is this "ping pong" effect of going back and forth between grainy scenes and clear ones throughout the length of this DVD's run, which made analyzing the video portion difficult. I would have to say, in the end, the best any "fan" is going to get of this title on any kind of home video software, and don't expect any "Special Edition" treatment of any kind, any time soon.....
ENGLISH DOLBY DIGITAL STEREO SURROUND, SPANISH MONO; ENGLISH, FRENCH & SPANISH LANGUAGE SUBTITLES
Man, do I HATE two-channel "Dolby Surround" mixes. They're just so weak and anemic compared to discrete Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS tracks. EVERY single title in my collection that comes with these "Dolby Surround" soundtracks on them (decoded via Pro Logic II processing on my receiver) all seem to share the same characteristics: low volume output, lack of dynamic range, incredible difficulty of hearing dialogue.....this list can go on and on. Beat Street is no different. Equipped with only one English option on board, this "Stereo Surround" mix is weak from the very beginning (which sounds odd after the massively loud roar of the MGM lion logo in the pre-Orion title sequence) and it seemed like no matter how much amplification I gave this track, it just never got "loud enough." Ambient noises in my listening room distracted from every angle because of this track's lack of dynamics, but that was the tip of the iceberg; dialogue is virtually non existent and absolutely lost when music scenes come onscreen (which there are many of because of the kind of film this is) and for such a music-oriented title, I was surprised MGM didn't give the audio on this title a bit more treatment. Most of the track is front-heavy, with the information spread to the three front channels and that typical "Pro Logic/Dolby Surround dialogue steering desperation" which seems to always happen, as the dialogue stem appears to be "struggling" to localize itself in the center channel via the Pro Logic II processing. It remained where it was supposed to for the length of the feature -- dialogue, that is, remaining mostly focused to that center speaker -- yet there was no "power" to the dialogue delivery and no punch whatsoever, even with system master volume levels turned WAY up. The surrounds were used as they usually are in a "Stereo Surround" mix, that is, sparingly and not aggressively; they kicked in to back up nightclub sequences where you would hear SLIGHT crowd ambience from those rear channels, or perhaps some New York City subway car audio cues, but that was about it. On the plus side, for a film from 1984, once you got your system pretty cranked up, the midbass punch from the songs on the film's soundtrack pumped out decently from the front soundstage -- but this required a lot of volume. Otherwise, another rather disappointing "Stereo Surround" or "Dolby Surround" track which had me hearing more noise around me in the listening room (dogs, people talking, etc.) than the soundtrack itself, no matter how hard I pushed it.
As one of MGM's bare bones Orion carry-over titles, Beat Street came "loaded" with the original theatrical trailer.
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