Director David LaChapelle's saving strength in Rize is the full-body impact of his photography, crucial to capturing the visceral force of dance teams that sometimes mime battle movements and, at other times, thrash as if undergoing a group exorcism.
His movie offers an impressionistic action painting of Clowning and Krumping - the South Central L.A. dance phenomena filled with rhythmic, hyperactive lunging and writhing. What these performers exorcize is their battle-lust. (At least that's what they say: The bitter aftermath of a climactic Clowning vs. Krumping contest may leave you with some doubts.)
Without this expression of fury and transcendence, many of them would wander into gang life. Without the fan-base they've developed, anything that smacks of "art" would be considered beneath contempt for 'hood inhabitants in their teens and 20s.
LaChapelle connects his spectacle to the Watts conflagration of 1965 and the 1992 riots sparked by the acquittal of police officers involved in the beating of Rodney King; he uses the character of Tommy Johnson (Tommy the Clown), who invented Clowning in response to the King riots, to unify the movie's stream of thumbnail portraits and ultra-kinetic routines.
That unity goes only so far. In costume Tommy does present a magnetic image - he sports a rainbow 'fro and white-face. And you can see where his followers picked up on his slippery, souped-up staccato style. Individual stories do convey the way this grass-roots form of art-and-entertainment can balance on a bullet or a blade, with leaders like Tommy mentoring young people out of respect for their burgeoning talent and concern for their lives.
But that's where the movie's lucidity ends. It's hard to tell the difference between Clowning and its offshoot, Krumping. When practitioners of each form compete in a "Battle Zone" contest, the individual stars (at least to this untutored eye) merely try to outdo each other in ferocity and speed and physical convolution. Is Krumping simply Clowning on amphetamines?
And does this movement siphon off and redirect aggressive energy - or does it sometimes reinforce it? The movie leaves you pondering what happens to the passions raised in the Battle Zone when the dance-combatants leave the arena.
Rize wants to celebrate art, and its brute force does rouse an audience. The movie's methods are those of graphic design and salesmanship. It's the pushiest film around - "in your face" is still in-your-face, even if the dancers are in white-face.
Documentary directed by David LaChapelle
Released by Lions Gate
Rated PG-13 (suggestive content, drug references, language and brief nudity)
Time 85 minutes
SUN SCORE * * * ( 3 STARS)