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LOSTATSEA.NET > FEATURES >

January 16, 2008
Rating: 7.5/10

Thousands of films are released each year, from documentaries to dramas and independent productions to studio blockbusters, yet only a few come to attain cult status. Of those films, some are lauded for being the first to document a certain movement, others for their incredible soundtracks, and some are considered cult classics just because the acting is so amusingly horrible. Wild Style manages to cover all of these bases.

Shot in the South Bronx in 1982, aspiring director Charlie Ahearn's film captured the origins of hip-hop culture. With appearances by hip-hop legend Grandmaster Flash, The Rock Steady Crew, and Fab 5 Freddy among others, Wild Style incorporated the then relatively obscure music, break dancing, and graffiti scenes - the cornerstones of hip-hop - found in New York's impoverished boroughs. Having been first on the scene with a film camera, Ahearn ended up making the earliest and most legitimate documentation of the early era of a genre that would come to dominate broad swaths of American and, ultimately, global urban youth culture. Often erroneously regarded as a documentary, Wild Style is a quasi-fictionalized story of "Zoro," a mysterious tagger whose rise to fame amongst the ranks of the Bronx's graffiti artists lands him a gig painting the stage for a rapper's convention. The film's fairly simple storyline was clearly less important to Ahearn than the culture it portrayed, a fact readily recognizable in the finished version.

Ahearn, who was in his early 20s at the time, had been turned on to the burgeoning hip-hip culture in New York in a somewhat roundabout way; having been involved in the city's arts scene, he was initially drawn to the developing subculture by the Big Apple's ubiquitous graffiti, which reminded him of abstract expressionist painting. In short order the young director's contacts with New York's street artists, most notably the Puerto Rican-born and Jean-Michel Basquiat contemporary Lee Quinones, put him in touch with "a tall, handsome guy with dark sunglasses" who went by the handle Fab 5 Freddy, who would later rise to prominence as MTV's point man for hip-hop on the programme Yo! MTV Raps. In June of 1980 the three men began hashing out plans for what would become Wild Style.

After overcoming an initial hesitation by several key members of the film - Quinones was at the time wanted by the police and was reluctant to appear on camera - Ahearn headed into the Bronx to shoot the seedlings of what would become today's billion-dollar hip-hop industry, filming in the wee-hours of the morning with, as he put it in an October interview with Ill Doctrine's Jay Smooth, "no security, no police anywhere, and a full set of camera equipment." Which was no small test of chutzpah in itself, as the low end of the Bronx was in 1982, in Ahearn's words, block upon block of "empty, burned-out buildings" with the look of "Berlin after World War II, the worst disaster America had ever seen."

As far as soundtracks go, Wild Style is unrivaled as the premiere early document of the East Coast hip-hop scene, which was centered in and around New York City. Along with Fab 5 Freddy, the film's soundtrack also featured cuts from the Cold Crush Brothers, Double Trouble, Fantastic Freaks and, amongst others, a young MC/DJ named Busy Bee, who would go on to join Afrika Bambaataa's Zulu Nation and, a few years later, be awarded the "MC World Supremacy Belt" by the New Music Seminar. While many of the film's soundtrack contributions came from artists whose names do not ring out loudly in today's music world, its cuts would come have an incomparable influence on heavy hitters like Kool Moe Dee, KRS-One, and Public Enemy, not to mention appearing as cut-ups and samples on groundbreaking albums by Nas, Cypress Hill, and the Beastie Boys.

While the area was easily one of the roughest in the world, the South Bronx of the early 1980s was also rife with creative characters, many of whom would leave indelible marks on Wild Style's finished state. While not involved in the film's soundtrack, hip-hop pioneers such as the Rock Steady Crew and Grandmaster Flash, along with members of their respective crews, appeared alongside Quinones, Fab 5 Freddy, Cold Crush Brothers, Patti Astor, and Sandra Fabara in key roles. In one especially memorable instance, Ahearn recalls an extra, pulled from the street, who refused to handle a prop pistol for a scene in the film, on the grounds that it was what he called a "pussy gun" - after handing the prop back to Ahearn, the man went to his car and produced a "rusty, sawed-off shotgun," which so impressed the young director that he neglected to ask if the weapon was loaded. Whether or not a shell was chambered, the ensuing shoot went off without a hitch, the street thugs going so far as to provide their own unscripted dialogue - "A to the motherfuckin' K."

Wild Style's protagonist, Zoro, is played by Quinones, a now world-renown artist who was completely unable to translate his skills in the visual medium to the role of actor. At times there is little to do but chuckle at Wild Style's acting in general, and Quinones in particular, but the obvious lack of refinement also brings an indispensable charm to the picture; the film was created out of an urge to document a culture, and when the production budget was scarce, the cast and crew did their best to make it work. The end result is at times undeniably amateurish (Ahearn himself had only worked on two films prior, Twins (not the one with DeVito and Schwarzenegger) and something called New York Hip Hop Convention, both in 1980), but Wild Style bursts onto the screen with so much heart that it is difficult to assess the film with a critical eye.

For anyone with even a remote interest in hip-hop culture, Wild Style is definitely a must-see. The film, which occupies the #7 berth on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the best music videos of all time, is as deserving as any of it's cult classic status and is rife with great moments. Even for those viewers not particularly into hip-hop, the movie will most likely still be highly entertaining on it's charm alone.

SEE ALSO: www.wildstylethemovie.com
SEE ALSO: www.rhino.com

--
Daniel Svanberg
A contributing writer for LAS, Daniel Svanberg now lives in Boston, far far away from Sweden, where he once lived, although the weather is the same.

See other articles by Daniel Svanberg.

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