Welcome to Couch Trespassing, where we look at a newly released DVD or Blu-ray title each week. We’re more interested in looking at older titles that have resurfaced or new titles you mightn’t have heard of before, rather than the same ol’ films that played in cinemas just four month ago. Grab the remote and take a seat!
The musical genre had long been phased out as cinema’s greatest genre by the 1980s. Failed stage adaptations (A Chorus Line, 1985) and an overload of camp (Xanadu, 1980) had effectively killed off the genre until its revival in the 2000s. For every Labyrinth and The Little Shop of Horrors (both 1986) there were many in the vein of Pennies from Heaven (1981) and The Pirate Movie (1982). What the derided decade did succeed at, however, was integrating the creaking mechanics of the musical with the very modern realities of the mainstream music industry. Films like Breakin’ and Footloose were attempting (and more-or-less succeeding at, but not to any long lasting effect) to revitalise the flailing genre with wall-to-wall pop soundtracks, recording industry superstars and a heavy reliance on up-to-the-minute dancing and fresh new stars.
The best of these new wave musicals was Stan Lathan’s Beat Street from 1984. Inspired by the emerging popularity of East Coast (predominantly New York) hip-hop music and graffiti art that had previously been chronicled in the 1983 classic Wild Style, Beat Street infused hip-hop and rap with pop, freestyle, Latin and disco into the story of a group of young friends who aim to use their under-valued talents at deejaying, rapping, breakdancing and graffiti to escape the doldrums of South Bronx. This is the sort of glum place where the only brightness residents got is the sight of a subway car covered in the blues, greens, reds and yellows of local graffiti artists.
Like the best films of its kind, Beat Street isn’t simply a glorified music video, but rather a celebration of the bond between artists and an examination of a culture that goes unappreciated and misrepresented. Far from being a never-ending series of sunny popping and locking, like the more well-known Breakin’ (and it’s infamous sequel, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo), Beat Street’s darker and more harsh look at this world makes for a powerful experience. The death of one character is played just as serious as it would in far more respected cinema; the events leading to a mighty ten-minute musical sequence that blows my mind every single time in the way its musical guests contort lyrics and sound.
The first American film to ever have two volumes of soundtrack released, the music of Beat Street is quite simply some of the greatest ever put to celluloid. Featuring legends of the era Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five, Doug E Fresh, Afrika Bambaataa, The System, Jazzy Jay, Kool Moe Dee and a brief appearance by personal favourite Brenda K Starr. It may appear clichéd and simply, but fans of the musical genre would be missing out on something special and era-defining if they skipped it. Elsewhere, it is indispensible to those wishing to navigate the origins of hip-hop. The local Blu-ray release–the first in the world!–is such a stark improvement over the VHS and DVD versions I’ve watched in the past, and this new edition, despite its lack of extras, is now a coveted piece of my collection.
Beat Street is out now on Blu-ray through Shock Entertainment