I’m into the early hiphopsploitation for many reasons: they’re a time capsule of an era and culture I’m fascinated by, they’re sometimes humorously dated or clueless about the subject, and they were what introduced me to that world, accurately depicted or otherwise. The BREAKIN’ movies were the big ones, but at the time I liked BEAT STREET better – it felt more authentic, and didn’t center on an outsider. Years later I discovered WILD STYLE (definitely the most legit one) and STYLE WARS (the documentary that seems to have inspired some of BEAT STREET), but also started to be much more enamored by the cartoonish world of Special K, Turbo and Ozone in the BREAKIN’s.
WILD STYLE was first, released in 1983. But check out the release schedule for ’84:
May 4: BREAKIN’
June 8: BEAT STREET
September 28: BODY ROCK
December 21: BREAKIN’ 2: WE ALREADY MADE A SEQUEL TO BREAKIN’
BODY ROCK – the one from New World Pictures – is the one I never knew about back then. It’s also by far the dumbest one. Therefore I have no choice but to recommend it. It stars Lorenzo Lamas (in the midst of Falcon Crest, five years before SNAKE EATER) as Chilly D, a… graffiti artist? He keeps saying he is, but we only see him helping with one subway car during the opening credits. He’s the founder and namer of the Body Rock Crew, his friends who breakdance, and he seems to be some kind of club promoter who introduces them when they dance at a place called Rhythm Nation. Then he stands on the side awkwardly doing a few moves.
Chilly’s best friend E-Z (Cameron Dye, VALLEY GIRL, THE LAST STARFIGHTER) is the DJ, who wears fingerless gloves but I don’t believe we ever see or hear him scratch. The best and most featured dancer is Magick (La Ron A. Smith, who somehow never made it into any other movies), a little kid who is especially great at robot moves. There’s also Ricky Riccardo (Oz Rock, BE SOMEBODY… OR BE SOMEBODY’S FOOL!), Snake (Rene Elizondo, POETIC JUSTICE) and Jama (Seth Kaufman, THE NAKED CAGE). Though not a major character, I recognized this guy:
…as the guy who does the weird shaky dance in the “Beat It” video (right). His name is Dane “Robot” Parker.
And on the topic of cameos by famous robots, there was another scene where I thought I spotted a beloved character actor from the movie ROCKY IV, but it turned out to be a different guy, and now I feel like a total racist. Sorry, robots. It’s not you. I’m just ignorant.
Chilly’s big contribution is holding Magick upside down by the ankles and tossing him into a backflip. But he’s convinced they all could make careers out of this so he finds the offices of a bigshot manager guy named Terrence (Ray Sharkey, PARADISE ALLEY), who’s unimpressed by his bravado, but does happen to need a DJ for a club he’s opening, and agrees to come check them out at Rhythm Nation.
When Chilly tells E-Z about this opportunity, he explains, “No, we’re entertainers, check it out. You’re the DJ, the scratcher. Jama is the rapper. Ricky Riccardo, Magick, Snake – they’re the breakers.”
“All right, yeah, we got it!” says E-Z.
“YEAHHH! That’s it.”
But E-Z thinks about it for a second, and asks, “What do you do?”
“What’s your thing?”
“I don’t know, man. I gotta figure it out before he comes down to see us.”
These types of movies always seem partly phony, despite the best efforts of legendary breakers and rappers who appear in them. Only WILD STYLE seems to come genuinely from the culture, with the rest clearly being production companies trying to jump on a hot new fad like with disco, skateboarding, lambada. But this is the only one where it really seems like the main actor has never met anybody involved in this scene at all. He seems to have no idea how they talk or act. I honestly considered the possibility that he thought this was just a thing made up for the movie. Lamas had been in GREASE, and it seems like the only way he can imagine the character is as John Travolta in SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. There’s definitely a little bit of that working-class-macho-man-struggling-to-express-himself-through-dance thing in the script. He stops living in a ratty apartment with his mom (Grace Zabriskie, CHILD’S PLAY 2, DROP ZONE, ARMAGEDDON) “Because I need to live in a creative envihoment, Ma. I need to be around other ahtists.” But he does almost no spraypainting, and a whole lot of exaggerated strutting. He wears a leather trenchcoat with “CHILLY” painted graffiti-style on the back and he never, ever gets tired of doing different poses tugging on the lapels or turning the collar up.
I want to say, I genuinely like Lamas in the SNAKE EATER trilogy and other movies. But he comes across as a total buffoon in this movie, and that’s kind of the main attraction. I have to admit that. As the emcee at the club or sometimes just talking with his friends he starts to rhyme with such outlandishly horrible rhythm and accent that it takes a second to figure out that what he’s doing might be intended to be rapping. I’m pretty sure Chilly D is on Bulworth’s Top 5 MCs list. Actually, he makes me forgive Bulworth. Maybe that guy wasn’t as bad as I thought.
The dancers do a big, impressive performance, but Terry tells Chilly he only wants to give him a contract. The old music movie cliche of the manager who turns everybody against each other by trying to get the one guy to go solo – but in this case it’s the only guy who has nothing to do. Not only the least necessary guy, but the one who clearly doesn’t belong and makes everybody else look like idiots for being part of his thing.
To his credit Chilly initially turns down the offer, and only agrees after E-Z convinces him he should go for it and maybe be able to help the rest of them once he has some clout. What E-Z doesn’t predict is that Chilly is an easily corrupted dickhead who almost instantly turns into an ego monster. Opening night he ditches his crew to get into a limo with Terry and his rich pals, goes home with the artist lady Claire (Vicki Frederick, …ALL THE MARBLES, A CHORUS LINE) and fucks her. Then he moves in with her, spends his time smoking weed, grabbing her ass and procrastinating about working on the album while talking big about painting the cover for it. He completely forgets he had just wooed E-Z’s sweet younger sister Darlene (Michelle Nicastro, THE SWAN PRINCESS) until her brother reminds him, and then he goes to have a romantic New York City montage with her. Cut to him forgetting to put her on the list for the club so she pays to get in and sees him making out with a new girl and then leaving with Claire.
The breaking point in this cautionary tale is some random homophobia: the limo crew takes him to a gay bar, the rich investor Donald (Joseph Whipp, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, SCORPION, DISORDERLIES) tries to kiss him, he punches him and loses his contract.
Before that he did have something to do at Terry’s new club: weird performance art, with some help by Magick and other dancers. The real artists here are whoever designed the blacklight costumes and set for this number. I suppose Chilly deserves credit for knowing how to spin nunchakas.
Later he actually performs a song called “Smooth Talker” (not on the soundtrack, which I recently bought on vinyl). It’s kind of a talk-singing song, not at all a rap, so it’s at least not as embarrassing as earlier.
There’s a goofy gimmick scene where he struts down the street and people come out of stores like he’s Thriller-era Michael Jackson. The camera takes the point-of-view of various unheard people who are apparently commenting on how awesome he is, and he looks into the camera and says things like “Come down to the club” or “Yo, this cut? Very big in Europe this season.”
Oh, and “It’s a live ride.” (?) I don’t know what that means, but he does a weird shrug and says it to somebody up on a fire exit, I think.
As he announces that “the next step” is to “cut a record,” he has a crowd following him like the training montage in ROCKY II. Man, I guess word really spread about him doing that day-glo nunchaka thing!
After his downfall, the club goes ahead with an idea he came up with called “The Rapstravaganza.” There’s a cool backdrop of a giant boombox, but no actual rap – it’s just a dance number set to a Police-esque song called “Vanishing Point” by Baxter Robinson, and then Claire doing her own version of Chilly’s “Smooth Talker” song. But Chilly bumrushes by doing a flip from the top of the boombox, then grabbing Claire and threatening her. Not cool! Then he introduces his “homeboys” and he… might think he’s doing… an “urban” accent? I mean, that’s my best guess for the sounds that he has coming out of his mouth.
The club turns the music off, but Darlene gets the crowd to clap, and they start a chant of “Just give us back that music and break – break,” while Chilly has an intense stare down with sweat-covered Donald. Hopefully it’s an “I will defeat you with the power of my friends knowing how to dance” stare and not a “remember when I punched you at the gay bar” stare.
For what it’s work, Sharkey is good as Terry. He seems like a cokehead but it’s pretty reasonable for him to cut ties with Chilly for punching the money man, so he doesn’t seem like the villain. Terry is the one who turns the music back on for the chanting crowd and he seems happy to be entertaining them. He could’ve played it like an outraged POLICE ACADEMY or REVENGE OF THE NERDS villain.
There’s some good New York City location shooting. Some World Trade Center. Some Times Square. Check out the marquee on the left – a theater called Criterion Center? It says they’re showing ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, ROMANCING THE STONE, GREYSTOKE, 16 CANDLES, FIRESTARTER and SCARFACE. Not a bad lineup.
Apparently it was originally the Olympia Theatre, built by Oscar Hammerstein (grandfather of the famous lyricist) in 1895, turned into a movie theater in 1915, rebuilt in 1935. In 2000 it became a Toys R Us and in 2016, when they were converting that into a Gap and an Old Navy, they found pieces of the original orchestra pit under the floor. No word on if they found the ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA marquee. Or if BODY ROCK ever played there.
This is the only feature film by director Marcelo Epstein, who had done the video for “Sex (I’m a…)” by Berlin.
It was written by Desmond Nakano (LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN, AMERICAN ME, WHITE MAN’S BURDEN) and Kimberly Lynn White. I noticed Chuck Russell, director of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3 and THE BLOB, is credited as associate producer. The soundtrack doesn’t have any rapping on it, but some decent songs like “Body Rock” by Maria Vidal and “Let Your Body Rock (Don’t Stop) by Ralph MacDonald. It has the right balance of kinda good/kinda funky and pretty bad/pretty cheesy for this type of movie. The score is by Sylvester Levay (COBRA, STONE COLD), and legendary cinematographer Robby Müller found time to shoot it somewhere in between REPO MAN, PARIS, TEXAS and TO LIVE AND DIE IN. L.A.
Almost all of these movies deal with young people trying to turn their talent into money and fame. Even WILD STYLE deals with the then-current trend of the fine art world recognizing graffiti artists. But BODY ROCK is the most crass about it, because the guy puts the horse before the cart, wanting the fame without even knowing what he does. He doesn’t really sell out, because what is he even selling? I don’t have much respect for Chilly D as an ahtist. But this is a funny movie.