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Beat Street (1984)

May 14th, 2007 · 11 Comments

Beat Street poster.jpg

It’s Christmastime in South Bronx. Kenny Kirkland, alias “Double K” (Guy Davis) spends his time in front of his turntables, mixing. His friends all have creative aspirations as well. Ramon bombs walls and subway cars under the tag “Ramo.” Chollie carries a briefcase and serves as Double K’s manager. Kenny’s younger brother Lee (Robert Taylor) is a promising breakdancer.

Life isn’t all fun and games though. Ramo struggles to earn the respect of his father, while trying to find a way to support his girlfriend and infant son. Lee – whose dance crew go by the name Beat Street – frequently brush up against a crew from another block. To settle their hostilities, they break out their best dance steps.

While Double K spins the turntables at a nightclub, Lee is approached by Tracy (Rae Dawn Chong), a dance instructor who asks Lee to show her students some moves they might use for a show she’s choreographing. Kenny accompanies Lee to the rehearsal, but doesn’t appreciate Tracy using his brother. “You just like all the biters. Take a bite and leave the rest.”

Beat Street pic 1.jpg

Tracy travels to the Bronx to clear the air. Kenny samples some new sounds for her that he’s working on, and Tracy notes there’s not much difference between what each of them does, taking different styles of music and mixing them into something new. The two develop feelings for each other, but Kenny has trouble putting aside his creative ambitions for a relationship.

Journalist Steven Hager visited South Bronx in the early ’80s to document the trinity of break dancing, graffiti art and hip hop that was emerging there. He used his research to assemble a movie script, which was bought by Harry Belafonte. Adapted by Andrew Davis and David Gilbert and Paul Golding, Beat Street followed Breakin’ into theaters, but this is far from an exploitation flick. I was stunned to discover that it’s a real film.

Like Saturday Night Fever, Beat Street is a fantastic social document of a moment in time, a time before crack cocaine infiltrated urban America and hip hop became a business. Guy Davis doesn’t have John Travolta’s charisma, but Beat Street isn’t a star vehicle. It doesn’t really institute hokey melodrama into the mix either. It’s a straight up labor of love on breakdancing, mixing, rapping and street art with barely anything else in between.

Beat Street pic 2.jpg

There’s something here for any hip hop fan to be excited about. I was interested in the street art, and there’s a terrific running bit about a clean white train that appears like the great white whale, an almost mythic creature for Ramo to pursue. A mystery punk begins defacing Ramo’s murals with his rudimentary tag, and these subplots kept the movie interesting for me.

I dug the creative ambiance of the film and its atmosphere, which feels authentic. There’s little in the movie that’s cringeworthy, not even Rae Dawn Chong’s performance. Some of the dancing and costuming is cornball, but the same could be said of Valley Girl. Another development I liked was an abandoned building the Beat Street crew transforms into the spot for their mix parties.

Director Stan Lathan got his start in public television on a show struggling to find an audience in the early ’70s called Sesame Street. He’s since gone on to direct TV specials for Dave Chappelle and Cedric the Entertainer and work extensively with Def Jam on shows like Def Poetry Jam. Beat Street is his only feature, but Lathan brings a sophisticated credibility to the film, which I really liked.

Beat Street pic 3.jpg

Tags: Coming of age · Concert · Music · Train

11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Abe Chong // May 14, 2007 at 10:53 pm

    The Grand Master Flash “Beat Street” rap is probably one of the bests movie themes ever created.

  • 2 Robert // May 15, 2007 at 4:19 pm

    Hey Joe,

    For a great documentary look at the culture from around the same time, nothing can compare to Style Wars, which was shown on PBS in 1983 and re-released on DVD a few years back. The story of the guy painting the “throw ups” over other artists’ burners is documented in Style Wars and I assume the same event was the basis of that plot element in Beat Street. And the “where are they now” segments on the Style Wars DVD are priceless. The film is on Google Video for anyone with the inclination to watch it at work…something I’d never do, of course.

    New York is definitely a different city today. The South Bronx especially, parts of which looked like a war zone and was typically described as a “moonscape” during the 70s and early 80s due to the ridiculous number of burned out buildings and the vacant lots fill with the rubble of those demolished and never cleared out. Subway cars are now engineered to repel paint and graffiti that’s done to the windows using a scratching method and acid is removed almost as quickly as it goes up. And the Bronx itself has been going through something of a renaissance, at least to a degree.

    I worked in the eastern side of the northern part of Bronx for three years and watched new construction go up almost continually in the South Bronx during that time. But it is still one of the most poverty stricken parts of the country. As of the end of August last year, the 2005 poverty rate for the nation as a whole was reported to be 12.6%; for the Bronx it was 29.2%. And I think that number factors in Riverdale, a very affluent neighborhood in the northwest part of Bronx County.

  • 3 Jordi // Aug 9, 2007 at 4:10 am

    Hi! I’m from Spain. Sorry, my english is very bad. I’m a fan of Beat Street movie. I’m 12 years old when in 1984 I see this film. From this moment I listen all the time Grandmaster flash and mixes and I look all the themes with scratch.
    well, I been Looking all the mixes in the movie. I don’t know he make it. You know? someone can help me? Thanks.

  • 4 bobby // Sep 13, 2007 at 6:10 pm

    I love the beat street movie born and still in the BRONX BABYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY

  • 5 Black Rose // Apr 30, 2008 at 12:13 pm

    Where the heck is Robert “Lee” Taylor??

  • 6 splash // Dec 20, 2008 at 3:24 pm

    what ever happen to robert taylor from beat street? he played lee?

  • 7 big will // Jan 31, 2011 at 8:05 pm

    I KNOW HIM.Robert Taylor aka “Lee FROM BEAT STREET HE USE TO LIVE MICHAELS HOUSING PROJECTS!! HE MIGHT BE STILL SMOKING CRACK IN THE BRONX !!! THATS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN U TELL UR DANCING BUDDYS THAT THEY CAN’T BE IN THE MOVIE!!!!

  • 8 Hotbraidz // Aug 2, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    Robert Lee Taylor is my brother and he became a family man ,he’s not in the bronx smoking crack….unbelievable!!!!

  • 9 ingrid davidson // Oct 8, 2011 at 8:48 am

    I really would like to know how old “lee” or robet taylor is and where and what happen to him. he was always my fav actor n that movie. Ive had a crush ever since…can someone email me a photo of robert? ingridjanee1@yahoo.com

  • 10 Ms Vonn@404 // Jun 11, 2012 at 12:01 am

    Yo, I loved Beat Street!!!!!! Since I was a Li youngster. NYC was the shit!!!! I’m from down South and the wasn’t doing it like NYC back in the days. Lee was my favorite actor!! I see a few negative shit being posted! About Li shorty. If u not in lee circle or fuck with him personally! Stop dropping salt on dude! Everyone has a pass history. No ones perfect out here in this world! It’s all about over coming your flaws in life! I bet u dude jus Laying low, behind scene, and smashing on y’all haters!! Straight up! Lee was Dope as hell.. Now.. I’m (smiling) on u haters… Bronx babieee

  • 11 kid // Dec 16, 2012 at 4:19 pm

    LEE IS THE SHIT

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