Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Netflix-a-thon (#18/19) Spike Lee's A HUEY NEWTON STORY & KRUSH GROOVE

Two movies back to back, and up to no good... I don't mean that, like, I didn't like them, I meant in the slang that... oh, I'm white, my bad, nevermind.

Huey P. Newton may not be as well known to people from 'my' generation- meaning those who grew up in the majority of time after his death (1989).  He was one of the co-founders of the Black Panter party.  According to Wikipedia, he became the head of the 'Ministry of Defense' by a coin toss with Bobby Seale, and then there were some ups and downs... mostly downs, and a lot of them (though not all) brought on by 'The Man' and fucking with him and sending him to prison for a murder he didn't commit, and then spent the 70's in the wake of the Blank Panther party to do... well, to try and figure out what kind of responsibility he had as a "leader", a term that, if one believes this live performance/mixed media film, he wasn't very comfortable with, certainly not as a Socialist.

Since my knowledge of him going into it was not very wide-reaching, I had to judge the work by its own terms, as theatrical presentation all-around.  It's a theater piece that, like other times Spike Lee has done, is caught on film with vivid colors and light and a camera that is either constantly on the move or in an angle that seems to be too unusual to be filmed all live, plus edited-in newsreel footage either cut in or screened behind the actor.  I have to wonder if this was filmed like like other productions like Freak or Original Kings of Comedy.  It might make sense that he stopped the performance to get another angle, or that, because it's being taped, Roger Gueneveur Smith would have stopped for the director.  Or it's all just really planned out and to-the-T timing on Lee's part.  There's not a fault on his part I could find.

As for Smith, his performance is something different.  I was always feeling on edge with how he did Huey Newton, and it was a strage edge.  I have to take it on the basis of the performance, which is at the least convincing of being full of passion and paranoia, that this was how Newton was.  Smith makes Newton into an equally charismatic and scary figure, one whose eyes have that cold-dark stare like someone at war (or, more approximately, a revolutionary who sometimes scares himself "like an onion, crying at the present" he says).  Sometimes this did work for me, and his rapport with the audience, whether they were for real or planeted by Lee, had a good genuine up-beat quality transforming it a little past a usual theater-monologue into a shared theater work.

Other times, I... I don't want to say Smith is not talented, because it's completely clear he is.  But it's such a fast performance, with words flying faster than an Aaron Sorkin script on methamphetamines, that it's hard to keep up, and with an accent out of one of the side characters from JFK or something: real New Orleans creole sound.  Again, this isn't to denigrate the performance, but a few moments I just heard my head screaming "Just QUIET for one second!"  And yet just as I would think that, the performance would slow down, and something wonderful would occur.  Huey talks about the savage nature of a circus geek and how a geek has to be cunning and quick with the chicken and toss out just one bone to remind everyone else looking in they are the geeks; an analogy for black repression in America.  It's a chilling passage, but even better is what comes after as he gets up and does a groovin' dance to Bob Dylan's "Balad of a Thin Man" (some of it, not all of it), cigarette flying.

The mood is tense and taut, but the material Smith delivers, with the kind of intensity of a professional who never loses for an instant his own conviction and stamina for the real person and the themes, is absorbing.  You want to know more about him after it ends, as it feels oddly enough as though this just scratches the surface about the movement and history.  At the least there is a sense of this man, who had a biting, sardonic sense of humor, bitter at those around him and somewhat at himself, and just at a society that doesn't see how its in revolution always.  It's a radical little production and direction for a radical who was as vulnerable as he was vicious and, indeed, kind of crazy, and its only liability is some repetitiveness in its performance and (by nature of its location) some of the shots.  And it gives some great references to Macbeth ("ghetto gangster, Act V Scene V) and Black Orpheus as a bonus.

And now for something a weee-bit different (though still right out of the streets and into your theater seats):

It's impossible, or close to it, to try and talk about Krush Groove the way that a usual movie review would go about it.  I can't really speak much to the quality of the direction as its by a hack-for-hire (the director Michael Schultz has such illustrious credits to him like Car Wash, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Rock 'n' Roll Mom, so let's not go to his oeuvre so fast), and while its cinematographer is a man with some name recognition for buffs, Ernest Dickerson of many of Spike Lee's best films, it too isn't anything to write at length in detailed form (save maybe for one interior bedroom scene at Sheila E's place in the middle of the night that's kind of moody).  And the plot, oh, don't go there too fast.

If I had to try and sum up the story it would have to just come down to this: it's got two stories, one more dramatic and one more comic, more or less (emphasis on that really), and one is about the start of the careers of rappers RUN DMC, Kurtis Blow and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde via Russell Simmons and Def Jam Records plus Sheila E, and the other is about, yup, The Fat Boys, the rappers who are up to no good at the Sbarro's All-You-Can-Eat buffet.  But if I were to tell someone about this movie, or more to the point tell them if Krush Groove is worth they're time on Netflix or to seek out on DVD, then telling about the story would be third or fourth, if at all, on my list of things to talk about.  It's got a story about as complicated as that of Burlesque, only with slightly better (just slightly, like by a nose-hair's length) dialog.

It's tricky to rock and rhyme, but the deficit, we could do that, no problemo.
No, no, good reader, see this because it's got mother-busting RUN DMC, Kurtis Blow, (most of all for some guilty-pleasure fans) The Fat Boys, and a slew of other memorable and not-so-memorable old-school rap acts out of the mid 1980's NYC rap scene.  It's a time and place that seems so ancient now even as it was still part of the post-modern era that we're in now.  It's got some lay-overs from the 70's- a disco club that the rappers go to after a gig, for example, and some of the music seems to carry over from it in the beats- but its really its own thing.  It's amazing to me that aside from the talent that is actually on display, how effective Run and DMC and everyone else were at the time of crafting they're raps to be about things, if only sometimes about having fun, is that it's a rap age that had a slight innocence to it.  This isn't to say Kurtis Blow or other rappers like Grandmaster Flash didn't rap about real shit going on in the streets, but the tone was different, less of the "Bitches and money" crappola that's sunken rap into the shitter for so long.

To see the rappers in this movie, from the main acts to the "smaller" ones (um, LL Cool J and The Beastie Boys for brief appearances), are to see acts that can stupify with the ease with which they lay their tricky rock-and-rhymes.  Not all of the acts blow one out of the water- Sheila E's first song (not the Hollyrock, the other one) is weak, and New Edition, well, let's not go their shall we into aluminum-foil suit-ville.  But the ones that do make the movie a lot of fun, as nostalgia and just as straight musical entertainment that flows well.  And when it means to be a comedy, as silly as it can be with those joyful idiot Fat Boys, it's very funny (the buffet I mentioned before had me cracking up laughing, and I knew it was intentional comedy thankfully).  It's when it's a drama that it's a little shakier since not all of the actors, even the real ones like Blair Underwood playing the Simmons surrogate, have much experience.  They do alright, but it's a storyline that is so cookie cutter it's biggest shock is how fast it goes through the motions.

Needs more Ding-Dong, man, Ding-Dong
Krush Groove, sadly, didn't become bigger than E.T. like the original bet was between Ben Affleck and Matt Damon in Kevin Smith's Dogma.  But in its own right, for some, maybe it had (or could have?) just as much a special place on the video shelf.  It works best as a slice of a time period, with some dated clothes and still funky and wicked beats and Rick Rubin (!) and cool rhymes done by people who know what they're doing.  Sometimes with a music movie I just want to be able to go as soon as the movie ends to check out as much of the music as possible.  You can rest assured, and hopefully this is the big recommendation, a Fat Boys CD will be coming express mail by the end of this week.

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