DVD Review: Wild Style 30th Anniversary Edition

Wild Style DVDSTUDIO: Music Box | DIRECTOR: Charlie Ahearn | CAST: Lee Quinones, Sandra Fabara, Patti Astor, Fab Five Freddy, Cold Crush Brothers, Rock Steady Crew, Grandmaster Flash, Busy Bee, Grandmixer DST
10/15/2013 | PRICE: DVD $29.95
BONUSES: Commentary by Charlie Ahearn and Fab 5 Freddy, featurettes, interviews, more
SPECS: R | 82 min. | Musical drama documentary | 1.37:1 widescreen | stereo

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall


If hip hop isn’t your thing, you might have spent the last three decades never discovering Wild Style, the brainchild of Fab Five Freddy and director Charlie Ahearn. It’s an early-‘80s independent film that, in no uncertain terms, changed the world. That’s a mighty boast, but you would be hard-pressed to name another movie that, without any marketing muscle, exposed a small artistic movement that went on to transcend political boundaries and alter popular culture forever.

But that’s exactly what Wild Style is—a little homemade flick from 1983 that captures the real spirit of hip-hop culture better than anything MTV ever coughed up in the ensuing thirty years. The plot is boyishly naive: Ray Quiñones stars as “Zoro”, the mystery graffiti artist who’s tag is seen all over New York City. As he struggles to find his artistic identity, he encounters all sorts of hurdles, from family members who think him a hoodlum to elite Uptown art gallery hipsters hungry for the next big thing. Through it all, Zoro hangs with an array of pioneering DJ’s and rappers (Grandmaster Flash, Cold Cut Bros. and many, many more) culminating in a giant performance and party in NYC’s East River Park.

Wild Style movie scene

Hip hop culture sprouts from the streets of New York in 1983's Wild Style.

So much for the plot; the movie’s charm lies in its style, especially the way it integrates MC’ing and DJ’ing as narrative devices. It’s basically half-documentary and half-musical, done so smoothly and sincerely that you never question any of the low-budget limitations the filmmakers must have faced. Ahearn’s brilliance lies in letting everyone just be themselves, somehow weaving mostly-improvised scenes into a coherent narrative. There are so many wonderful little moments in Wild Style, like Grandmaster Flash’s impromptu scratching demo, or the West Side Story nod of freestyle-battling street gangs (via a basketball game, no less!) that you soon realize this isn’t about reaching your destination, it’s about enjoying the ride.

What makes Wild Style an important historical document worthy of a deluxe, 2-disc 30th Anniversary DVD set, however, is its reminder of what hip-hop culture is all about. Notably absent from the film are all the negative stereotypes Hollywood has trained you to expect from that universe: bitches, ho’s, hard drugs, drive-by shootings, and lots of bling… none of this is part of the story. Before it was co-opted by the music industry, hip-hop was a positive creative force emerging from a disenfranchised culture trying to find their way in an otherwise-dismal 1970’s urban setting. Wild Style is the best piece of evidence for that historical argument I’ve ever seen.

The DVD bonus features speak to Wild Style‘s importance via a series of new interviews with several key crew and cast members who take us back to the early-‘80s downtown NYC scene peppered with  such icons as Basquiat and Blondie’s Debbie Harry—the  setting which gave birth to the film. They also wax poetic on Wild Style’s cultural impact as it toured the world, single-handedly bringing rapping, breakdancing and turntablism to countries as remote as Japan (remember, kids, this was before the internet!)

These bonus materials seem haphazardly organized (Disc 2 is basically a few extra bits that couldn’t fit onto Disc 1), but that’s a minor complaint when the material is so rich. The musical film shorts are a total treat, such as watching Grand Master Caz battle Tanzanian MC Balozi Dola while getting haircuts in Bongo Barbershop, or following Busy Bee freestyle all over the hood with a megaphone in Busy on the Beach. There’s also a lot of nostalgic reminiscing by many of hip hop’s founding fathers (and mothers), but Busy Bee nails it when he says, “hip hop was all about peace, unity, and having fun. That’s it.”

Contrast that with an over-priced, gentrified New York and a bastardized commercial genre that glorifies easy cash and stretched limos, and you realize the importance of this release. With a loose, vibrant creative vibe unique to that city in that era, Wild Style is both a work of art and a history lesson every 20-year-old would benefit from viewing.


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About Memo

Memo Salazar attempts many things and accomplishes few. His big three are making films, music, and comics, but he'll throw photography, graphic design and film criticism into the ring for good measure. He'll even make you a hand-painted t-shirt if you ask nicely. You can track his activity here when there's nothing else to do at work.