Opens Fri Oct 24
Clinton St. Theater
Wild Style is the greatest hiphop movie ever made, and the original filmic document of hiphop culture. Filmed in the Bronx with many of hiphop's creators--Lee Quinones, the Fantastic Five, the Cold Crush, Lisa Lee--this year, it celebrates its 20th anniversary. I called director Charlie Ahearn in New York to find out what he thought about it all.
How are you doing?
Good. Fab Five Freddy is about to come over for lunch.
You still hang out?
We've been on the phone all morning because he wrote a forward for an exhibition of my [early hiphop] photographs in Tokyo.
It's amazing, your photos and Wild Style take you everywhere.
I have to be humble and thankful. For the past year, I've been traveling for shows, which are connected to the Yes Yes Y'all book [the Oral History of Hip-Hop's First Decade, which Ahearn co-wrote]. Whenever possible I try to bring along someone like Grandmaster Caz or the Chief Rocker Busy Bee. This week, I'm traveling to London with Grand Wizard Theodore and Busy Bee.
Have you seen an upswing in Wild Style's popularity since its video/DVD release last year?
It's been building--I would say the nadir was sometime around 1990. [The film] fell into a complete dark ages during the late '80s, and there was a gradual revival of interest in the '90s. People would hear about it word-of-mouth, because there was no way to buy it. There was this legend of a movie, but not everyone had seen it. Gradually over the years, I've been trying to get it back out in proper form, in high quality.
It has become this cornerstone of hiphop's origins.
It can only do so much 'cause it's just a movie, but it embodies a certain spirit. There are certainly other movies that have more b-boying, but Wild Style is true to its origins. People know by now that when they see people in the movie, they aren't actors playing roles. No matter how bad the movie gets.
I didn't have the perspective when I was making the film that we were gonna have this deep historic overview. If anything, I think Fred [Braithwaite, aka Fab Five Freddy] and I were looking to create a statement of where hiphop was going, rather than a historical review. It was important for me to use people in the film who I thought were significant to the original cultureÉ everyone was a major contributor, but we meant to create an image of what hiphop could be.
Were you pissed after Beat Street came out with a storyline similar to Wild Style?
No, I wasn't mad. At the time, Wild Style was wildly successful for what it was. It toured all the major cities; it was a tiny indie film made for a few hundred thousand dollars. Both movies are pretty corny, but Wild Style's a lot less corny.
I love the story of how, in the movie, the hold-up guys used their own sawed-off shotgun because they didn't think your gun prop looked real enough.
There stories are endless. You have to remember the film was a total disaster as a production; things would go so wrong while we were shooting. When we shot the scene in the subway yards, I had to book them six months in advance. I put a quarter of my budget toward paying the MTA to shoot there, and the night we were supposed to shoot there, it was pouring rain. The second thing was that Lee Quinones never showed up that night, to the biggest scene in the movie. I was faced with a big disaster. So we shot our way through it. I put the doo-rag on Dondi, who was a graf artist--he was, if anything, the number two subway-style master of that era, next to Lee. And we always shot away from the lights, 'cause that way, you don't see the rain. A lot of the small stuff, like the chase scene and the dialogue scene, I had to shoot later. That helped me develop as a filmmaker, and I think the film improved because of that. Because it's not a documentary--except for the scene where they're looking at subway cars--I never went with a camera and shot things that were happening. That helped open up the film in a way, so it forced me to recognize that I was making a narrative movie, that things can be changed. That may seem obvious to an experienced filmmaker, but I was learning on foot.
What are you doing now?
I'm developing a movie project related to Wild Style, which is probably no surprise to anyone. The movie would happen previous to Wild Style--it would happen in the mid-'70s; it envisions the world that happened before it. Because Wild Style was late classic hiphop, everything about the culture had coalesced and, in many ways, had come and gone several times by the time I was making the movie.