Thursday Editor’s Pick: Wild Style (1983)

by on September 16, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Thurs Sept 22, 30 Minutes After Sunset in Washington Square Park [Program & Tix]


The last gasp of free outdoor screenings for the year, as IFC Center concludes “Movies on the Square: All Singing! All Dancing! All New York!” in the newly renovated Washington Square Park.


Ernest Hardy for The Village Voice:

Originally released in 1983, Charles Ahearn’s classic hip-hop film, Wild Style, laid out from the start a lot of the overlapping issues that continue to plague hip-hop culture: the tensions sparked when artists try to stay true to their outsider or artistic roots even as mainstream validation beckons; the potentially corrupting effects of the media’s contextualizing of the art and artists; the struggle to sustain authenticity. A documentary-style film that doesn’t have much in the way of conventional plot or structure, Wild Style follows Zoro (played by OG graffiti artist Lee Quinones) as he navigates his way from the bombed-out streets of the Bronx to art-world Manhattan while simultaneously working through his complicated feelings for fellow graffiti artist Rose. The acting is often laughably stiff, but that’s part of the charm of a film whose real value is as a time capsule unlocked. A who’s who of early hip-hop appears on-screen (including Quinones, Fab Five Freddy, Grandmaster Flash, Rock Steady Crew, Cold Crush Brothers, and a blink-and-you-miss-her club shot of Angie B./Angie Stone), while background shots of the war-zone streets that birthed hip-hop, long shots of beautifully and meticulously tagged subway trains, and in-your-face performance scenes set in palpably hot, sweaty makeshift clubs combine to give Wild Style an artful vibrancy that remains undiminished



A.O. Scott for The New York Times:

In some ways it’s hard to believe that ”WILD STYLE,” Charlie Ahearn’s bracing, guerilla-style foray into the world of New York hip-hop, is 25 years old. The movie, a new print of which will have a late-night, weeklong run at Film Forum starting Friday, is certainly a time capsule of sorts. The music is scratched out on turntables and blasted over outdoor P.A. systems; the subway trains are blanketed with graffiti; the clothes are beyond old school; and the city itself is a run-down, rough-and-tumble place that feels at once more dangerous and sweeter than the current incarnation.


But ”Wild Style,” for all its undeniable historical interest, remains, to borrow a term from the rap lexicon, permanently fresh. This is not only because Mr. Ahearn’s almost-documentary style seals his characters — most of them real-life graffiti artists, dancers and M.C.’s — in the present tense. It’s more because in capturing the hip-hop aesthetic at an early point of ferment and vigor, his film was able to intuit what hip-hop would become. Mr. Ahearn’s hero Zorro’s drive for self-expression, for visibility, for art, is ultimately the impulse that keeps popular culture alive. It’s something that never gets old.


David Gonzalez interviews Ahearn for the New York Times’ City Room blog:

“This film was a projection of our dreams,” Mr. Ahearn said. “There was nothing out there that showed all these artists together in one scene. It was only later that people began to look at it as some sort of documentary. But at first, we were just projecting what we wanted it to be. It was our wildest dream of what could happen.”


“The funny thing is a few years after we made the movie, people thought it was old-fashioned,” said Mr. Ahearn. “I mean, by 1986, nobody wanted to admit to being a break dancer. Now they look back at this as a touchstone. Nas called it the visual bible of hip-hop. People talk about the Bronx and ‘Wild Style’ and it’s revered. In Europe and Japan, it’s like sacred scrolls. It is the only document that still holds up.”



Click here for a 2008 podcast of Ahearn and special guests at Film Forum.

A SoundSlam interview with Ahearn:

Something that I found interesting was that the film is very community based, and as you said, the actors that you cast were not necessarily actors, but people in the Hip Hop scene there. In the film itself everyone knows each other, they all know what’s going on, but the main character in a sense feels alone and is afraid to really let people know that he is Zorro and has these talents. Was that contrast intentional?


That was the most important part of the story of the film. What you’re describing, and you have to understand that Lee Quinones’ role in real life was to shield himself from people knowing who he was. There were a lot of police that would have like to have caught him and arrested him for things he had done. In a way it’s kind of like The Harder They Come. We didn’t patterned ourselves after that film, which I have the utmost respect for, but in the sense that the character is an outlaw. That was real to Lee’s life. It was important for him. Doing this film was an act of incredible conflict. If you ever check into the book I made, “Wildstyle The Sampler,” it does go into depth of what this conflict produced for Lee. While we were making the film, he often didn’t show up for some of the most significant scenes like the one with the writers in the subway yards. He didn’t show up that night because of his inner conflict, his very real conflict. And it really screwed up our film.


In other words, the kind of things I’m talking about in a sense are more real than some of the things someone could talk about in a documentary. This went right to the heart of the matter and it played out in real life while we were producing the film. Which is also true of his relationship to this woman, Lady Pink, who was in fact his girlfriend and a writer at the time. I was using a lot of things like that that were real in the course of the story. We got more in-depth…That’s true of the basketball scene which is a rivalry between these two street rap groups, the Fantastic and The Cold Crush. They were playing out something on the basketball court that was life or death in their real existence. If you could have interviewed them at the time I’m sure they would have explained how much this scene meant to them. They knew that whatever was being recorded on film could either dissuade or persuade people as to whether they were the greatest rap group.



Melissa Anderson for Time Out New York:

In this seminal, semidocumentary portrait of hip-hop, Charlie Ahearn shows that the South Bronx wasn’t just burning. It was breaking, popping, locking, tagging and rhyming. Wild Style is just as important a New York City musical as On the Town, so vital and exuberant are its scenes of a burgeoning cultural moment, including Double Trouble’s “Stoop Rap,” the basketball throwdown between the Cold Crush Brothers and the Fantastic Freaks, and the culminating jam at the East River Park band shell.


Though Wild Style has charismatic stars in Lee Quinones as graffiti artist Zoro and Fab Five Freddy as party promoter Phade, it also has its share of scene-stealing moments by the ladies: Witness Lisa Lee’s flow and Sandra Fabara giving Zoro the what for. And it deftly reflects the thin line between inspiration and appropriation by white artists. In a fleeting shot of a graffiti-adorned wall, you can make out one of Keith Haring’s radiant babies. Patti Astor, as the journalist Virginia, is in some ways a surrogate for Ahearn. Blondie’s “Pretty Baby” and “Rapture” play on the soundtrack; that group’s Chris Stein cocomposed Wild Style’s original music. But the film wasn’t made to suggest that Gotham was one big rainbow coalition—its sole purpose was to celebrate the genius of hip-hop’s founders.



Steven Boone for The House Next Door:

Even cuter, Zorro pines after Rose (graffiti artist Sandra Fabara, aka Lady Pink), who he first assumes is his new girlfriend on the basis of a sweet kiss at the film’s beginning, but later suspects has been stepping out on him with various members of The Union. Wild Style takes this romantic subplot into a more interesting place than you might expect. Ray ultimately charms Rose through his work, and their relationship is consummated not in the bedroom but through an 11th hour brainstorm when Zorro is stumped for ideas while facing a deadline on a band shell mural he has been commissioned to paint for the movie’s big showstopper. Rose shows her love for him by telling him his big idea sucks and suggesting a better one. Instead of boiling into an argument, this confrontation sends Zorro sky high. She’s kept it real with him and fed his imagination, not his ego or his ambition. It’s a lovely little moment.


Ahearn’s style is as simple and direct as the raps. He apparently didn’t waste a lot of time rehearsing or polishing the film’s dialogue, preferring to just set up situations and let them play out. The result has all the befuddled charm of a middle school talent show where the kids all have talents, just not always the ones they’ve been asked to perform. In this charmingly ragged way, Wild Style celebrates the persistence of street-level ambition, insatiable creativity, and youthful passions in the face of hostile (the cops) and exploitative (media) forces. Zorro wants his work to be appreciated, sure, but he’s not out to conquer the world or become a perpetual moving target . Yet that’s just what hip hop would do/become within four years of Wild Style‘s completion. Those who still love and contribute to the culture return to this film as a wellspring of hip hop’s d-i-y, improvisatory spirit. Many point to the impromptu scene of Grandmaster Flash doing turntable sorcery in his kitchen as an emblem of that spirit. But this film overflows with such images. My favorite passes by in a flash: Knobby-kneed little neighborhood kids pitch in to help Zorro finish the band shell, maneuvering paint rollers nearly twice their height, as serious and focused as classical artisans.


Cherryl Aldave for Hip Hop DX:

Wild Style was the first film to combine the formerly separate elements of what is now known as hip-hop into one cohesive culture. Fab 5 Freddy is credited with contributing this unified vision of hip-hop to the film, an aspect of the work that made it legendary almost upon release. The Rock And Roll Hall of Fame named Wild Style one of the ten best rock movies of all time.
However, it is the film’s final scene, the outdoor “Rap Convention” scene, that is Wild Style‘s best moment. All the other performances, uneasily seamed between dialogue scenes like heavy cuts on an old record, seem to foreshadow this huge event. The mother of all hip-hop party scenes, the concert features performances by those previously seen in the film plus a few pleasant surprises. Right before the beginning of the scene, a clip of Grand Master Flash cutting it up on a kitchen table as Fab 5 Freddy looks on sets the mood. As the scene begins, Fab 5 introduces the Fantastic Freaks, who get the party going with their braggodocious rhymes. Immediately afterward, Busy Bee tends to house warming duties before the white gangster suited, fake gun toting Double Trouble wrecks the stage, followed by Rammellzee and Shock Dell with Grand Mixer D. St. on the ones and twos. Gracing the stage during this final performance–Rammell/Shock/D. St.–are b-boy legends from the Rock Steady Crew, including Crazy Legs, Mr. Freeze, and Frosty Freeze, as well as dancers from Electric Force and Pop-O-Matic, sealing the film’s part documentary, part “fresh fest” feeling.



Sasha Frere-Jones, also for the Voice:

Hip-hop rolls on tractor treads now, unafraid to colonize those who hesitate, but in 1982 it was small, self-selecting, and as specific to New York as the World Trade Center. Watching Wild Style, it’s hard to believe that hip-hop was about to steal away the role of historical yeast from punk. Apparently the film “shattered house records . . . at the Embassy Theater in Times Square,” but I remember a midday screening with eight other fiends who came just to see graffiti god Lee Quinones in the flesh.


Comfortable with fruitful wandering and slack time, director Charlie Ahearn reads more like Eric Rohmer than William Friedkin. The plot, such as it is, tracks Zoro (Quinones) on his anxious transition from layups to galleries accompanied by reporter Virginia (Patti Astor). Fab Five Freddy, as uptown ambassador Phade, generates the same pleasant dissonance Divine brought to John Waters movies, looking off to greener pastures and redder carpets in the middle of a low-budge art movie. Double Trouble’s magnificent “Stoop Rap” makes you long for a Folkways library of hip-hop field recordings. (The final concert scene in a Lower East Side bandshell seems positively anthropological now.) Heads complained about Blondie’s Chris Stein getting the soundtrack gig, but his clanky instrumentals are as perfectly off-center and adorable as the rest of the movie. Wild Style shows hip-hop when it was just some New York shit, one of many things to do on Saturday night. It had to learn to become hegemonic.


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