Remember when being a young poet meant loneliness, thoughtful gazes and the glorious martyrdom of being misunderstood? In contrast, the high schoolers in “Louder Than a Bomb” wield words as weapons of mutual salvation and they are all in the same boat: pairs of friends, groups of teammates, a city of teens grappling with problems. possibilities.
The city is Chicago, which has hosted the annual Louder Than a Bomb poetry slam for eight years when the documentary opens in 2008. Students come from all corners of the city – the downtown staff at Steinmetz Academic Center in L-Town, the rich white kids of Northside College Prep – and they participate in both solo performances and team events. Think of it as “Glee” without music. Without a net too.
Co-directors Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel (the latter is the nephew of the late film critic Gene Siskel) use an upbeat musical score and fluid editing to immerse us in it; the film is propulsive without being arrogant. And the students break your heart. “Louder Than a Bomb” focuses on four of the 46 entering schools and four amazing writers / performers who you feel are not the best but just the bad guys. They represent, in more than one way.
You can see what dramas filmmakers are drawn to. In 2007, Steinmetz participated for the first time and won first place; now they’re back to prove it wasn’t fluke. At first glance, the team’s stars Lamar, Kevin, Jesus and Big C match every commuter’s quivering image of young urban darkness, but of course the vulnerability beneath the rough surface just keeps showing up. . (Big C, in particular, cries over everything.) You can see their terror of being blocked, of missing, and also their pride in stringing together sentences that punchily, persuasively paint their lives.
Equally compelling is Nova, from Oak Park and River Forest High School in the western suburbs. As she performs plays about caring for her evil dad at 10 and her autistic brother at 13, you understand why she’s so oddly self-sufficient at 17, and what her verse lacks inventiveness, it compensates in power.
The poetry in “Stronger than a Bomb” is not the kind of small press, although it sometimes comes close to the finesse of observation. Rather, this child’s garden of worms is triangulated by rap, diaries, and the great poets students read in school – Langston Hughes, Allen Ginsberg, and so on. A poised and ambitious senior like Nate Marshall can play in a rap group in addition to consciously working on his craft as a writer, keeping a close watch to see where the strands intersect and separate. All borders are permeable; everything feeds everything else.
The film has a star but, oddly enough, we don’t know what to do with it. Adam Gottlieb is a Jewish kid from Northside with a flowing hipster ponytail and one of those beaming personalities that everyone loves him, even his rivals. (Even his rivals’ coaches.) When he performs a play about his Yiddish grandmother that touches all foreigners experience in the hall or lead the audience to the edge of a delirious free fall with words, rhythm and rhythm, it is very clear that we are seeing a natural in action.
We want more from Gottlieb but even he realizes he’s not the story here. “Louder Than a Bomb” speaks of the doors that language opens to those who not to have the privilege or the luxury of two supportive parents, and it is above all about the joy that comes from stepping through that door to find a host of new empathetic companions. If you’re not careful, you might not know who actually won the 2008 competition, but that’s not really the problem. Poetry either. The point is where the poetry takes you.
Ty Burr can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. To follow it, go to www.twitter.com/tyburr.
Â© Copyright 2011 Globe Newspaper Company.