Jon Siskel and Greg Jacobs' Louder Than a Bomb, just out in limited release, knocks you out with its passion and strength, even as it leaves you feeling hopeful about a younger generation that, from all media depictions, is obsessed with Internet first-person-shooter video games, YouTube and celebrity news.
Oh yeah, and it's a movie about poetry.
Well, not completely. This documentary follows four teams of teens as they gear up for an annual poetry-slam competition in Chicago called "Louder Than a Bomb." But the film is really about the power of creativity and collaboration; it looks at the creation of a self-supporting teen community, which lifts kids who may have little or none of that kind of support at home.
Siskel and Jacobs start a year before the 2008 competition, introducing us to a handful of young poets whose lives provide them with plenty of fodder for inspiration. There's Nate Marshall, a charismatic teen who grew up in a tough neighborhood where his love of learning -- and writing -- made him a target. Nova Venerable, by contrast, uses her poetry as a release, an outlet to express the barely-contained rage that comes from living in a household where her father is absent and her younger brother is profoundly disabled. Both are fully committed to their writing and performing, to being part of the team and helping their teammates.
Yet their passion is no greater than that of Adam Gottlieb, a long-haired white teen from an affluent suburb, who embodies the spirit of the competition: At one point in the contest, though he has just killed with a poem in his round, he decides not to perform the same piece when he goes up against the same school in a later round -- both as a challenge to himself and out of a sense of fairness.
The poetry itself is heartfelt and filled with raw emotion and a gift for language. The young writers must deal with the stress and demands of school and their lives outside of school -- then give themselves over to the muse and live in the confluence of it all.
Their lives are not easy. Steinmetz Academic Center -- whose poets called themselves the Steinmenauts -- is an inner-city school where the poetry-slam team coach has to struggle to hold his students' attention and to enforce discipline to get them to write. Yet at a key moment -- when he's ready to toss three team members for disrespecting him -- it becomes clear how much this activity means to them.
"The point is not the points -- the point is the poem," proclaim the emcees when the competition starts and it rapidly becomes apparent just how true -- and how painful -- that notion can be. The students don't just bring it -- they put their entire being into the performances, just as they've invested their souls in the writing itself.
Siskel and Jacobs manage the tricky feat of getting the audience invested in several individual poets, but also involving them in the fate of the Steinmenauts as a group. When the poets themselves get onstage -- when the camera holds on their faces as they unleash a full three-minute piece -- the effect can be electrifying.
Like Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom, Louder Than a Bomb seems to focus on a youth competition. In the end, however, you see that, in fact, the point is not the points -- it's about changing young lives, on giving them a taste for learning and a facility with language. In this post-literate era, how can you not cheer something like that?
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