Style Wars (Stomp Visual) (1983) (NTSC)

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Released 1-Nov-2003

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Documentary Main Menu Animation-Over 23 mins of original outtake footage
Audio Commentary-Filmmakers
Outtakes-9
Interviews-Crew-Editors Victor Kanefsky and Sam Pollard (2002)
Interviews-Crew-Tony Silver And Henry Chalfant (2002)
Featurette-32 Artist Galleries, Including Interviews,Trains And Photos
Gallery-Archive: Montage
Web Links-30 min loop of over 200 whole cars and burners
Gallery-Destroy All Lines: Montage
Booklet-Guest interviews with Fab 5 Freddy, DJ Red Alert, Goldie....
Rating Rated E
Year Of Production 1983
Running Time 69:47
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (69:47)
Dual Disc Set
Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 1,2,3,4,5,6 Directed By Henry Chalfant
Tony Silver
Studio
Distributor
Plexifilm
Stomp Visual
Starring Cap
Frosty Freeze
Kase 2
Edward I. Koch
Crazy Legs
Mare
Seen
Skeme
Case Flexbox
RPI $42.95 Music None Given


Video (NTSC) Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame Full Frame English Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
English Dolby Digital 5.1 (384Kb/s)
English Audio Commentary Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio None
16x9 Enhancement No
Video Format 480i (NTSC)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.37:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English for the Hearing Impaired Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

     Style Wars is a bit of a cult classic amongst aficionados of the Hip Hop movement, and it's well deserved approbation. Way back in the 1970s, a cultural revolution was brewing into social warfare on the streets of New York. In the face of impoverishment, uncaring governments and social deprivation, the youth of the boroughs of the Big Apple declared war on the city, heralding their protest on the moving 'canvasses' of the metropolitan railway system. For the unseen and the unheard, the lumbering carriages became a way to be noticed - their temporary artwork travelling from one end to the other of the bustling metropolis. Soon, it became important to this subculture to be the "King of the Line" - to have your artwork on every rail network available. The object was to "bomb" the city with your particular style of graffiti writing - to be seen everywhere.

     Henry Chalfant observed this phenomena and became fascinated with the boldness, energy and innovation of their work. He started to photograph these travelling artworks, and became close to some of the creators. Gradually earning their trust, his studio became a de facto museum of graffiti art, and consequently, a hangout for the graffiti writers themselves. What he came to understand was that graffiti writing was an element of an entire counter culture - Hip Hop culture. Out on the streets, rapping, DJ-ing and break dancing were burgeoning as other expressions of Hip Hop. Chalfant wasn't the only one to notice this new revolution. Erstwhile musical Svengali, Malcolm McLaren, looking for a new sound after the Sex Pistols, gleefully appropriated break dancing and DJ-ing in his hit, Buffalo Gals, but while his sampling gave higher prominence to the new art form, he distilled away its original rawness and aggressive intent. Break dancing was not just a joyous series of spins and backflips - it was an act of bravado and aggression between two dancing "crews". It was left, therefore to Chalfant and his directorial partner, Tony Silver, to tell the real story of the Hip Hop revolution.

     The opening sequence of Style Wars is as dramatic an introduction as you're likely to see. To the turgid swells of Wagner, a barking voice commands "Brown and Walker...Bring the train out from 16 track." From the darkness, squealing and clacking, the lights of a train draw closer - lights that blink like ominous eyes, its carriages following in the shadows, like the coils unfolding in a snake. Blue sparks issue from its underbelly - a stormy portent as the music gathers up like rain clouds in the sky. It snakes along in darkness - illuminated only by its inner diabolical glow. One single streetlight is by the side of the track, its weak beam throwing a spotlight onto the side of the train. Caught in the tiny circle of tungsten, strange forms glow on the side of the metallic beast. As the music swells to an exultant high point, suddenly, we cut to daylight, and a disembodied hand sprays paint on a wall. Exultant interruptus! Just as the final trumpet notes are poised to crescendo, BAM - the soundtrack cuts to rap - "If you're feeling all right and you think you're on..." and the bright light of day almost hurts the eye as a flurry of images spill into view - vividly painted trains festooned with strange, barely discernible names intensely decorated and embellished. In rapid succession, images of various art pieces, interspersed with dramatic break dancing jumble and tumble over each other, until a narrator's interjection slows the pace a little with his introduction of the culture of the graffiti writer.

     Over the next 70 minutes or so, we are introduced to the characters who have embraced the lifestyle of the graffiti writer, the B-boy dancer, the rapper, or the DJ. Whilst their chosen form of expression may vary, each is single-minded in one pursuit - to be "King". Chalfant and Silver have made one particularly excellent choice. They have determined to largely allow the participants to tell their own story without excessive interference from the film's production. Make no mistake, this is indeed a war. The kids are at war with the city authorities, particularly the mayor at the time, the crusty Ed Koch, the New York Transit Authority and the police. But they are also at war with each other.

     Not only do they engage in rivalry to be the King, but they also have to contend with insurrection in the ranks, particularly one insurgent, Cap, who flagrantly breaks the unwritten laws of graffiti writing - you don't put a "throw up" over a "burner." Cap's stated interest in volume rather than quality greatly insults the other writers who are passionate about their craft. From their perspective, he almost single-handedly achieves what the authorities at that time could not - removing the incentive to festoon the trains with their artwork. For the other writers - there is an adrenaline rush to their lifestyle that is intensely addictive. The dangers of train writing provide some of their greatest thrills. To these guys, the lumbering carriages are living organisms. Their passion and affection for the trains is palpable - an extremely urbanised form of train spotting.

      Chalfant and Silver leave the decision about whether this is art or vandalism largely up to the viewer, but at least provide some context for how the phenomenon came to be. Most of these kids are unbelievably young, and the vast majority (though not all) are from impoverished backgrounds. Their art speaks to them and for them about an extremely harsh and cruel life, where life expectancy is ridiculously diminished. Their new-formed culture is an expression of their desire to be heard, to be seen, to be acknowledged. Indeed, as the feature disc shows, many of them acknowledge that it was their urban art, and the culture that surrounded it, which kept them alive. Sadly, for some of them, even the art was not enough to preserve them.

      The authorities do ultimately prevail. Finally deciding to invest some money into the urban transit system, they replace the old trains with sleek, modern "white elephants". At the first sign of graffiti, the train is removed from the track, replaced with a "cleanskin" and repainted to remove any trace of the "graff". Having become accustomed to the chaotic, ebullient moving art of the old trains, the new ones do seem rather sterile and lifeless. Defeated, the graffers have to reconsider their stance on art. Some make the transition to art galleries, sculpture and more conventional "respectability" - for others, however, the thrill is gone.

      Originally released in 1982, this DVD presentation is yet another excellent Plexifilm re-release. Fast track to 2002, and the second disc in this fantastic presentation catches up with many of the original perpetrators. How fascinating it is to see how time has treated this bunch of formerly wily and rowdy teenagers. There's an almost universal nostalgia amongst the original crews for a time that was perhaps harsher, but still filled with a unique energy. For some, graff, dancing or other forms of Hip Hop expression are still their principal artistic fuel. For others, those days seem long ago.

      This film is a fascinating exploration of the birth of a subculture. It also serves as a tender memorial to some of those who were at the forefront of the Style War - notably the gentle and thoughtful Dondi and the quiet Shy 147.

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Transfer Quality

Video

     Yet again, Plexifilm has put together an outstanding presentation which provides much texture and background to the subject. I really love these guys!

     This transfer is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, which is forgivably close to its original aspect of 1.37:1. Note that this is an NTSC transfer, so your equipment will need to be NTSC compatible to view it.

     The presentation shows the low budget origins of the original presentation, with some significant grain issues and stock that looks every one of its 20 odd years of age. There is some evidence of low level noise, and the aliasing is quite prevalent in places, but this appears to be an original sin, as opposed to a transfer transgression. There are times when telecine wobble occurs quite significantly, and there's that jittery old NTSC look in the slow pans that can make your eyes feel like they're wobbling a bit, but those are more hallmarks of the film's age and original budget constraints.

     The colour range is actually quite good, which is probably just as well for a film that relies on its artwork so heavily. Skin tones are a little variable throughout, but this doesn't look like a transfer issue.

     There are lots of dust spots and scratch marks in the original print, but the transfer itself looks largely artefact free.

     This is an RSDL disc, but the layer change occurs at the end of the main presentation, before the extras, so there is no layer break pause.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

     The soundtrack is delivered in English Dolby Digital 2.0, English Dolby Digital 5.1, and with an English Audio Commentary in Dolby Digital 2.0.

     The dialogue is a little dense at times, and filled with Hip Hop vernacular and strong Bronxy accents. Fortunately, the subtitles are clean, clear and accurate, and may be of some assistance in tuning your ear into the dialogue. Audio sync is a little loose at times, but is generally acceptable.

     The music is the life blood of this film with contributions by El-P, RJD2, Aesop Rock, Mr Wiggles, Kimson "Angola-Red" Albert and Darryl Jenifer (according to the DVD case!)

     The surround presence is subtle but present nonetheless, and there's some good fruity work for the subwoofer to get stuck into. A fairly immersive sound experience.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

     One of the reasons I've developed such a fondness for Plexifilm is the care and consideration they take in presenting their DVDs. They offer a genuine and complete experience, with careful thought attended to the liner notes in the case, and what a viewer may want to see in the extras. Well done chaps! This is no exception.

Menu

     The menu is animated and silent.

DISC ONE

Outtakes

      21:45 minutes of outtakes that feature Detective Bernie Jacobs; Kase, Butch, Dee5 and Dez (some nasty scratches in this section); Skeme & Barbara; Dondi, Duro & Marisol; Iz the Wiz; Rock Steady; Lady Pink & Cap; Detective Hickey, Crash & Shy 147; and Seen.

Filmmaker Interviews

      Director and producer Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant speak for 9 minutes, 57 seconds, and Film Editors Victor Kanefsky and Sam Pollard speak for 2 minutes and 31 seconds. These are both interesting retrospective interviews.

Audio Commentary

      Director and producer Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant take turns in discussing this film and the context in which it was made. This is a fascinating discussion about the culture of Style Wars and provides some excellent insights into the time it was made, though it may have been nice to have a little further information about the ensuing years and how they treated the protagonists. They don't even acknowledge the passing of Dondi, which made it something of a surprise to see a memorial to him on the second disc. Further independent probing revealed that sadly, he passed away from AIDS in 1998 - a genuine loss to the graff art movement.

DISC TWO

Weblink Invitation

      This takes you to a page that lists a number of URLs for related sites, plus the address of the Style Wars website.

Artists

      This features the artists from the film with their selected works, plus some absolutely fascinating interviews with some of the artists who, in 2002, reminisce about the impact of the film twenty years earlier, and their lives since. The interviews feature:

Cap

Crazy Legs

Dez

Dondi Memorial

Doze

Duro

Frosty Freeze

Iz the Wiz

Ken Swift

Mare

Min

Quik

Rammellzee (whooo - wait till you see this one!)

Revolt

Zephyr

Seen

Shy 147 Memorial

Skeme

Blade

Lee

 Archive

      Six panoramas of trains by various artists.

Destroy All Lines

      A 30 minute loop of various trains.

Booklet

      This is a fantastic background to the film and really sets the style and pace for what you're about to view.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

     This is the same version that they have in the US - which means, sadly, that it is an NTSC production.

Summary

     Absolutely compelling, and fantastically reproduced, this is a winner for anyone interested in the urban culture of Hip Hop, or anyone interested in social history.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Mirella Roche-Parker (read my bio)
Saturday, November 13, 2004
Review Equipment
DVDSinger SGD-001, using S-Video output
DisplayTeac 76cm Widescreen. Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationTeac 5.1 integrated system
Speakers fronts-paradigm titans, centre &rear Sony - radio parts subbie

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