Rize, the new documentary by Vanity Fair photographer David LaChapelle, has all the elements you would expect from a depiction of life in South Central Los Angeles. The opening features footage from race riots in both the '60s and the '90s. The film's vivid colours begin to show hyper-kinetic dancing backed by an overbearing hip-hop soundtrack. Then, just a few min- utes into the proceedings, things take a turn for the surreal.
Enter Tommy the Clown, complete with a rainbow wig, white face paint and baggy clothes. Costuming aside, what Tommy is doing is pretty far removed from traditional clowning. The true focus of the film and the main subject of LaChapelle's lens is dancing. Specifically, he focuses on the rivalry between two schools of dancing. There's the "clowning" style combining booty-quivering and hip-popping with pratfalls and general silliness, and "krumping," an offshoot resembling a mix between tribal dancing, street-fighting and the video for Christina Aguilera's "Dirrty," also directed by LaChapelle. Krumpers find clowning too restrictive and self-censored, while clowns think the krumpers look ridiculous, which is saying something when your group is identified by face- paint and colorful garb. It all comes to a head in a dance-off, where audience applause decides the school with the better moves.
If it all sounds a little silly, it isn't. LaChapelle's interviews with the dancers adds needed weight. There's no doubt the whole premise sounds like something out of a spoof but listen to the film's subjects speak and you realize this really is a matter of life and death. After all, Tommy wasn't always a clown, he's a reformed drug dealer who found God and turned his life around after serving his time. While he's ostensibly a children's entertainer, it isn't hard to think of him as a lifesaver. Through his clown college he's providing inner city youth with an alternative to the gangs and guns lifestyle making Tommy's next door neighbors "Payless Caskets," dishearteningly profitable.
The film itself is a visual stunner, as the dancers pop around the screen with ruthless abandon. The krumpers in particular straddle the line between sex and violence, often looking possessed or, at least, on drugs. Unfortunately, the dance montages feel overly long, like the filmmaker was more concerned with the dance itself than the people doing it. It's a shame, because the characters we see are almost always captivating. Many express a worry their lifestyle will end up commercialized and exploited like hip-hop before it and LaChapelle occasionally falls into this trap. His liberal borrowing from krumpers in the "Dirrty" video doesn't bode well for the style staying outside the MTV mainstream.
Still, Rize is an encouraging film showing there can be hope in even the grimmest situations. None of the people profiled are immune from the prevalent gang lifestyle--death and robbery affect them as much as anyone else--but there's a positivity pervading the film despite its darkest moments. Things could get better if only people would realize there are better ways. Bizarrely enough, one of these ways turned out to be clowning.