According to the brief description of Wild Style (1982) on Amazon, the film is “Universally hailed as the first hip-hop movie,” whatever that means. What it means for me is that I am back to taking film suggestions. It also has the key words “drama,” “atmospheric,” and “beautiful.” I am glad Amazon came up with these words because I am not sure how I am going to describe to you what I just saw. I like to think that I understand the development of hip-hop pretty well. Yet, watching this film made me realize how much of an intellectual exercise this has been for me, particularly in the last few years. I got what was happening on screen. What I could not divine was a point to any of it. Still, if you ever thought, hey, I wonder what the South Bronx looked like in the early 1980s, then here you go.
Get ready for all the graffiti you can handle with Wild Style. And rap. And partying. And a little marijuana and drinking thrown in for good measure. I guess our main character is Raymond (Lee Quiñones), but he also goes by his tagging (graffiti slang) sobriquet Zoro. That is not a typo, by the way. He is creeping around the city, applying his art to walls and elevated train cars, and stalking his girlfriend, Lady Pink Rose (Sandra Fabara). She has a nickname, too, because she also does graffiti: Lady Bug. Part of the problem is that Raymond likes to work alone, whereas Rose prefers the group effort of a cabal calling itself “The Union.” There are a lot of collections of people here of various activities and sizes. Raymond is fiercely defensive of his independence, and his anonymity of Zoro. Okay, maybe “fiercely” is the wrong word because as soon as somebody else discovers his secret identity, he promptly gives up any pretext of secrecy. In fact, everyone seems to know he is, except Rose up until the end. I digress. When Raymond is not honing his art or stalking Rose, he is usually at a club. If you can name a band or luminary attached to this time and place of hip hop, then you probably saw them in this scene. The main person that he is there to see is his friend Phade (Frederick Brathwait, also known as Fab 5 Freddy). To Phade Raymond pours out his frustrations with The Union and how he wants to make a living by painting his street art. After a night of debauchery with Phade, who is also Raymond’s de facto agent, Phade comes up with an idea for getting Raymond the kind of recognition that leads to fame and fortune. There is a reporter, Virginia (Patti Astor), who wants to do a story on the emerging graffiti scene, and Phade thinks Raymond is the perfect candidate to be showcased. At first, Raymond resists the offer because it means revealing himself as Zoro. Yet, they end up bringing her back to the same club where she mingles with the locals. They then proceed to a Midtwon Manhattan party where a group of wealthy socialites are all of the sudden interested in this new thing called hip-hop. The hostess, in particular, is intrigued and fronts Raymond a couple hundred dollars to get started on a piece inspired by the New York sky line. What happens to this work, I do not know. I do see where Rose walks back into Raymond’s life, and all is seemingly forgiven between them. Instead, Raymond is fixated on a giant graffiti project on the community amphitheater. Luckily, Rose is on hand to give him some timely inspiration. This is conveniently in time for a concert with all the other rap groups in the area to put on a concert that Phade has been advertising throughout the movie. We close with Raymond going to the top and bobbing his head along with the music.
This is a short synopsis of Wild Style because there is not a lot going on in it. It is feature length, clocking in at a little shy of an hour and a half. This is not a contradiction of terms. How could a movie be that long and I have so little to say about it? Because there are long stretches that are basically music videos with break dancing interludes mixed into them. As such, the film is more about the experience (or atmosphere as I mentioned earlier) of being a part of the early rap scene. Speaking of which, one thing that is made abundantly clear throughout is that hip-hop is a product of its environment. That environment looks like a colorized version of German cities after Allied bombing during World War II. In turn, this becomes something above which people like Raymond must literally rise, which he does at the end. In a limited sense, this reminds me of one of the purposes of faith. To believe in God is meant to be transcendent. This is something Raymond tries to do with his art. He sees it as something beyond himself, wanting it to speak to his community. This has been at the heart of Christianity from the beginning, where everyone was asked to contribute something to the whole. By the end of the film, Raymond’s graffiti provides the backdrop for an event for everyone to enjoy.
That is about as good as I can do with Wild Style. Despite its strong community message, it is definitely not a film for everyone. The casual substance abuse is one thing. Unless you are someone who loves this kind of music, you also will probably not get a lot out of it. It is also hilariously poorly edited in places. If you can get past these things, then . . . um . . . cool?