Directed by Paul Devlin. (1998, NR, 91 min.)
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Jan. 22, 1999
The slam poetry movement: return to verse's classical roots as an improvisational, often competitive oral art form or barbarians at the gate of high art? Either way, Paul Devlin's hugely entertaining documentary should provide plenty of fodder for your next literary coffee klatch, whether it takes place over double espressos at Little City or Food Club Instant at your construction site. Using many of the shooting and editing techniques he perfected while shooting extreme sports events for ESPN2, Devlin pushes the pace throughout, mixing the hottest moments from live performances with striking declarations gleaned from interviews with the mostly young, passionately opinionated participants. One undisputed fact is that slams are an audience-driven form, in which showmanship and raw charisma count at least as much as the absolute artistic merit of the poets' hyper-adrenal three-minute presentations. This leads to an obvious tension between the high-minded ideals of the movement's founder, Marc Smith, and the poets themselves, who've been forced to adapt their presentations to the ultra-competitive, maddeningly arbitrary judging format. What I found interesting was the poets' differing approaches to this basic quandary. For example, Providence's Taylor Mali is a Neil LaBute character waiting to happen: a WASPishly handsome, unabashedly non-PC hardball player who establishes an interesting tension between his rather jaded worldview and the undeniable passion and clarity of his words. Meanwhile, Team Austin (Wammo, Danny Solis, Hilary Thomas, and Phil West), who are represented in two high-energy performances, wow their audiences with manic velocity and clockwork coordination. Then there's New York's Saul Williams (also the star of another movie called Slam), whose style is an intriguing fusion of hip-hop rhythms with Gil Scott-Heronesque lyrical sorties. Others who get (and richly deserve) a lot of screen time are Patricia Smith, a Boston journalist/slam goddess whose unfortunate claim to mass fame is getting caught fictionalizing her news features, and New Yorker Beau Sia, an Asian-American dynamo whose jet-fueled rants draw some of the strongest responses of all. SlamNation (which also screened during last year's SXSW Film Festival) runs a tad long at 91 minutes, and many of the performances are repeated. However, this seems to be a conscious decision by Devlin to emphasize the surprisingly grueling nature of the multi-round elimination slam “tournament” the story is built around. Like Rob Bindler's Hands on a Hard Body, this is a movie you can enjoy whether or not you have any personal investment in the specific cultural milieu it portrays. It's a film that, with a refreshing dearth of highbrow pretense, raises serious questions about the role of art in our daily lives and suggests pretty convincingly that the answer is in our hands.