Rize (documentary)

I submit that if someone proposed a fictional movie about a group of Los Angeles street kids who dress as clowns and perform frenetic, breakin’-inspired dancing at kids’ parties as an alternative to joining gangs, the person suggesting it would be laughed out of the movie executive’s office.

Yet here is “Rize,” a documentary that proves that sometimes the most bizarre things MUST be true, because you could never make them up. Directed by photographer David LaChapelle, “Rize” chronicles the emergence of “clowning” and its break-off genre, “krumping.” The former began in the ’90s as a type of street dancing in which the performer could vent his aggressions and frustrations peacefully, as opposed to the usual method of dealing with such things in L.A., which is to start a riot.

Clowning’s originator was Tommy the Hip Hop Clown, a performer whose name is self-explanatory. He has a team of fellow dancers now, and he says there are more than 50 clown groups in L.A., all with basically the same agenda of performing at street fairs and parties and generally spreading merriment through their jerky, sped-up style of dance. It’s primarily African-American young people involved, though a few white and Asian groups have popped up, too, though as in rap, they have a hard time being accepted.

Krumping came later, started by disgruntled clowners who were unhappy with Tommy’s attitude or philosophy or something and seceded to begin their own movement. Krumping itself does not appear largely divergent from clowning, except that it involves less face paint and has a more violent feel to it. I’m sure the practitioners of either could list the more subtle differences for you.

All of this leads to the Clown Wars, which you’ll recall Obi-Wan Kenobi telling Luke Skywalker he fought in with Luke’s father. But I jest. The Clown Wars are held at the Forum in Inglewood, and thousands of fans of both styles of dance come to vote one or the other to victory, thus settling once and for all the matter of clown vs. krump.

You see now that this is all too silly to be fictional. For the participants, though, it’s a matter of life and death. One kid after another tells the camera that involvement with the dance groups gives them something to do, keeps them off the streets, keeps them out of gangs.

Where LaChapelle errs, though, is in not spending enough down time with the dancers. Whenever we see them, they are either dancing or talking about dancing. We don’t see their everyday lives, and hence don’t get a feel for who they are, or why we should care about them. The big dance-off at the end has no real stakes to it, not just because it’s a silly contest to see which weird version of street dancing is preferable, but because we don’t know who any of the performers are.

B- (1 hr., 24 min.; PG-13, a little profanity, a little thematic material.)