If you’re like me, you’re a middle-class white guy with limited experience on the dance floor. For this and many other reasons, I’d never heard of Tommy the Clown, clowning, krumping, or pretty much any of the things covered in the new documentary Rize, directed by overhyped fashion photographer and music-video director David LaChapelle. He’s already produced and directed a couple of shorts about the subject, and I get the feeling I’d enjoy those a lot more than this: even at 84 minutes, Rize starts to fall after the first hour.
Beginning with footage of the Watts riots in 1965 and the Rodney King riots in 1992, ostensibly to provide context but really because he thinks it makes him look deep, LaChapelle then introduces the man that started it all: Tommy the Clown, a “ghetto celebrity.” After going to prison for selling drugs (“I was, you know, I guess you could say, a drug dealer,” Tommy says. Touching honesty.), Tommy got out and decided to do something positive with his life. He performed as a hip-hop dancing clown at a local birthday party, and word spread throughout the neighborhoods of his dancing skills and entertaining abilities. Soon enough he formed Tommy the Clown’s Hip-Hop Dancing Academy (I couldn’t make that up), a combination haven/dance school for kids that want a way out of the dangerous life of South Central Los Angeles. His signature dancing style, a frenetic pulse to a furious beat, became known as “clowning.” The success of the dance craze spawned dozens of imitating groups; one of the kids who clowns with Tommy estimates there at least 50 such groups around the city. A lot of clowning is based around the stripper dance, where the dancer spreads his legs and crouches while shaking his ass and thrusting their pelvis like Beyonce in “Crazy in Love.” Clowning is basically the stripper dance plus some arm swinging.
A few of Tommy’s old kids branched off from clowning and created “krumping,” which is a lot more spastic and anger-driven than its predecessor. The krumpers, like Lil C, Dragon, and Tight Eyez, use the convulsive dancing as a way to channel a lot of the anger they feel into something more creative and positive than being in one of the gangs that prowls the streets of their neighborhood. Several of the krumpers talk about the importance of religion in their lives, and almost all are lacking fathers. In addition, some of the krumpers discuss how close they came to lives of crime. Unfortunately, every time LaChapelle gets close to actually exploring the deeper meaning behind the tribal dances, he gives up and just shows more krumping montages. It’s like the idea of doing a full-on documentary seemed a bit too hard, so he’s settled on a really long music video with interspersed sections of awful dialogue; think Bad on the big screen.
LaChapelle completely lets go of any attempt at a documentary when he showcases the krumpers dancing in a runoff ditch of the L.A. River. The kids have been hosed down and artificially lit, turning what could have been another example of their art into just another crappy music video. It’s one thing for LaChapelle to film the dancing in its own environment; it’s another entirely to stage it like a Christina Aguilera video. He even lays one of Xtina’s songs over the visual of a krumper dancing on the beach, staring into the sunset next to the Santa Monica pier, and while it’s a hackneyed but workable shot for a You Got Served sequel, here it screams of forced emotion and incongruity. I doubt the krumpers ever look at each other and say, “Hey, tonight let’s go dance on the beach. I’m bringing Dirrty.”
The climax, or what would be the climax if LaChapelle were a better storyteller, takes place at Battle Zone V, which I thought was a Van Damme movie but is actually a contest between the clowns and the krumpers. Tommy, I should mention, wears clown makeup and a rainbow wig most of the time, so it’s awkward to see a man in full-on Bozo face trying to give a tough speech about the importance of winning. The clowns win the contest over the krumpers, but while they’re at the show, Tommy’s house is burgled and his things trashed. It’s then that we’re treated to — you guessed it — the tears of a clown. Tommy enters into a sad, self-pitying monologue about how hard everything is, how it’s always something, someone always trying to get you down, etc. But one hardly sympathizes with him. I felt a mild respect for the fact that he got off drugs after he got out of prison, but a jerk in a clown suit can still be a jerk in a clown suit, regardless of his dope problems in the past.
This whole show’s only a step or two away from being Christopher Guest material, but the fact that it’s all real makes it just plain absurd. It’s hardly a visual masterpiece, or an orgy of awesomeness, or whatever other quotes the publicists are floating through the festivals. It’s a big, sad, uninteresting show, made worse because, in the hands of a competent filmmaker, it could have been so much better.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Growing Bald.
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()