In the annals of cinema, Charlie Ahearn’s 1983 hip-hop docu-drama Wild Style is hardly as revered as it ought to be. It won no awards, rarely features on any lists niche or otherwise, and seemingly receives no credit for its fusion of documentary and fiction. Well, certainly none that I have ever seen and that’s a damn shame. Thankfully upon its 30th anniversary the film has received a new digital make-over, a small-scale theatrical re-release and a home entertainment release that finally gives this monumental and historic film the due that has been deserved for decades.
Anybody with ears can tell that the immensely popular hip-hop genre of music has swung and truly towards the direction of pop. Pop artists have been experimenting with the artform since Debbie Harry and her Blondie bandmates introduced “Rapture” upon audiences and has continued on through Mariah Carey’s groundbreaking use of hip-hop artists – and those as controversial as Ol’ Dirty Bastard – into her summertime pop melodies and on to the likes of Miley Cyrus today whose latest album, the appropriately titled Bangerz, merges so many genres together that it all but makes a justified stand for the tearing down of genre barriers that keep artists in tailor-made boxes. Meanwhile, hip-hop artists have found themselves more and more utilising pop and electronic music, a clear sign of the genre’s hook-obsessed debt to the mainstream pop charts. We’ve come a long way from Madonna and Tupac recording a duet and it not appearing on an album (that’d be “I’d Rather Be Your Lover”, of which there are bootlegs all over the internet), that’s for sure.
Of course, what few people seem to admit is that hip-hop, long before it got divided by coast and became about the flash that the predominantly black artists were hoping to achieve, is that the genre was once a spin-off of disco. From its inception, hip-hop was about the issues facing the African American communities that were cultivating the sound, but in doing so they were utilising scraps of disco and pop music as the base for their lyrical freestyling and captivating beats. Chic’s “Good Times” is sampled heavily in a track from Wild Style, and even Notorious B.I.G. was taking Diana Ross’ famous gay anthem, “I’m Coming Out” and using it as the crux of his “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems” over a decade later. Furthermore, artists like Jurassic 5, Common, Cyprus Hill, NaS, and A Tribe Called Quest have all referenced or directly sampled the film and its music in their own work years later. That some 30 years after Wild Style the genre as well and truly come full circle not only makes me, a huge fan of old-school hip-hop, pleased as punch, but should also make Wild Style as essential now as it was in 1983.
Wild Style is quite literally like watching the dawn of a new era. Hip-hop was underground, but making its way into the popular consciousness. For that reason alone Ahearn’s movie is a must see. Graffiti artists were not only beginning to find their work appreciated and in demand from business like the nightclub featured prominently in the film, but they were also being courted by the art world keen to find the next big thing. The rap battles that were common place within African American communities now had one foot in the Bronx and the other in Manhattan. Alongside Beat Street from 1984, it’s a bold and exciting artist’s utopia; a time when creativity was fostered and uninhibited with endless possibilities and a culture was beginning to exhibit the elements that would eventually allow it to become the music industry’s most dominant genre.
Make no mistake, Wild Style is appallingly acted and Ahearn’s direction is relatively lacklustre as these things go – Beat Street is Gone with the Wind by comparison – and yet I’d still consider it better than roughly 95% of the new release movies I see in any given year. The 80-odd minutes that Wild Style surrounded me in the small cinema at the IFC Centre near W 4th street (with, it must be noted, only six others, all of whom were white) were more invigorating, exhilarating, heart-pounding and flat out entertaining than anything I’ve seen in 2013, that’s for sure. Even through all of its flaws and jagged edges, the film’s message of community, perseverance, and the enduring power of music and art soar above what count as modern masterpieces to most audiences. Looking at the film purely from a filmmaking sense then, sure, it’s pretty darn crummy, but the energy that the director gets in those musical sequences with a budget of what I can only assume was gas fumes and breadcrumbs is surely unmistakable., and from the up close view of a then closed off world more than makes up for any technical shortcomings. I guess it depends on what you go to the movies for, but for me Wild Style is a classic and a remarkable example of what the medium can do to an audience.
Blending the documentary of the musical sequences (in many senses it works as a concert film) with the fictional tale of a reporter (Patti Astor as Virginia) scoping out the local scene, it features real graffiti artists (Lee Quiñones, Lady Pink) and rap, DJ, and emcee musicians (Busy Bee, Fab 5 Freddy, Rock Steady Crew, Queen Lisa Lee, Grandmaster Flash) in real Bronx and Manhattan locations. This gives the film the authentic quality of Cinéma vérité that is loose and works within a freestyle form that is absolutely at one with the musical world in inhabits. As actors none of them are any good, but their performance enthusiasm and skill with a can of spray paint is second to none. Meanwhile, it’s hard not to appreciate the way Patti Astor has been made up to look exactly like the one and only Deborah Harry. Her character is even introduced to the beat of Blondie’s “Pretty Baby”, while the aforementioned “Rapture” plays during an extended sequence at a Manhattan art-world party. As documented extensively including in Celine Danhier’s 2010 doco Blank City about the no-wave art movement of New York in the ’80s, Harry was heavily into this alternative scene and it’s no surprise her presence lingers over Wild Style‘s entire being.
Thanks to the down and dirty cinematography of Clive Davidson and John Foster, the film has a look that is entirely unique. Cheap it most certainly is, but Davidson and Foster clearly made strong attempts at finding captivating images. The way the camera is framed equally around the meticulously designed graffiti arts as it is around the characters gives the film a more raw and palpable sense of atmosphere than that of, say, The Warriors from a few years prior. The digital upgrade has also made the Manhattan sequences look far more vibrant than I recall experiencing with the original DVD release that I had seen. The dusk establishing views of Manhattan with its purple skies and rows of fluorescent-dotted skylines are curiously beguiling. Street sequences recall other more derelict examples of New York City decay from the ‘7os and ’80s (not Taxi Driver, then) like TV crime drama The Equalizer and a less skuzzy version of Maniac that only film could capture. It has remarkable warmth to its hues and the blacks look deep.
In many ways, Wild Style is one of the most perfect and precise examples of independent filmmaking I can imagine. It’s singularity makes it memorable; its capturing of a time and a place of such significance makes its important. It’s a work of art that has rightfully attained a cult status amongst those who not only have a weakness for this era, but who also consider cinema to not always be about the things we’re so often told cinema ought to be about. It generally lacks narrative and is even a little feral, but it’s always engaging and bold and even if none of that strikes you then the musical sequences bristle with energy and rhythm. The fact that it’s an imperfect film only makes me think more fondly of it. Charlie Ahearn so desperately wanted to document this moment in time for the world to discover and if takes them 30 years to do so then so be it. The film remains a powerful testament to their vision and to the people that quite literally changed the entertainment medium one twisted, rhyming phrase at a time. It deserves to be hailed not must a New York classic, or a hip-hop icon, but a down the line masterpiece of art as cinema. Long live the Wild Style. A
Wild Style‘s 30th anniversary edition is out now on DVD and digital platforms now, and also playing select cinemas including the IFC Center in Manhattan for one more night, Pittsburgh (10th of October at the Hollywood Theatre) and Baltimore (4th of November at the Charles Theatre).