In chronicling the struggles or journey of a subject, it’s not uncommon for documentaries to lose touch with the human element and feel distant towards the people whose lives it’s throwing up on the screen. They could be revealing the plight of an aboriginal tribe or a labor union’s struggle to defend worker’s rights – but if the director can’t get the right footage and keep the cameras intimately connected to the characters within, the whole thing ends up as little more than 90 minutes of impersonal recollection. Louder Than a Bomb has the exact opposite problem, though you could argue it’s not a problem at all: at times it delves in too deep into the details of its characters. Charting the progress of inner city Chicago youths with a passion for poetry as they work towards the titular competition, Louder Than a Bomb is an incredibly touching and inspiring documentary that keeps an audience enthralled throughout with stirring poetry performances by talented teens, and it only ever drags when it stoops to some reality television-level drama.
The plight of arts programs in the American public school systems (and the systems themselves) has been well-documented, satirized, and mourned by many filmmakers. Usually the focus is on drama and the importance of keeping the creative process alive by encouraging students to be involved in theater, speech, or dance; rarely does one hear about poetry. As an oft-overlooked counterculture well hidden beneath the Hollywood-dominated world of media, poetry competitions rarely receive the attention that the talent required for the art form deserves. Louder Than a Bomb remedies that.
The film dives into the lives of four different poetry teams at different public high schools within Chicago and follows them as a new year begins and they balance their academics with their love for this underappreciated competition. Some pursue it to resolve inner conflict arising from troubles at home and others to allow themselves a voice they feel has no outlet otherwise. Whatever the case, the kids in question are talented, but not all of them know it. The ones just trying to vent paint vivid pictures of their most private fears while standing on a brightly lit stage before their peers; they gush forth with emotional soliloquies that can range from an inspiring anthem of youthful perseverance to a cry for help to pull them out of situations that require more maturity than they think themselves capable of. Something different compels each and every one of them, but regardless, the results can be stunning.
Watching the creative process of the kids and seeing their lives at home lends tons of emotional weight to each competitive performance as the footage of their personal lives is well-chosen to reflect the piece they deliver soon after. It’s a near pitch-perfect pairing of character study and creative resolution. When it sticks to that formula the film soars. You meet the kids, you hear their teachers and the organizers of the festivals talk about each student’s passion and the unexpectedly powerful performances they’ve given in the past, so by the time they take the stage for an impassioned throw down, you can’t help but be blown away by where it all comes from and how raw it all is.
Yet in a few cases, the film takes steps away from this winning combination and unnecessarily buries itself in inconsequential issues of disciplinary conflicts between a few students and their teachers. It doesn’t deepen the tension but only detracts from the momentum the film builds towards the big landmark competitions where we hear the stunning verses. Granted it’s only about 5 minutes out of the entire film, but it just grinds the film to a jarring halt. Were it not for the excellent performances that followed, it would be a much more egregious sin.
Directors John Siskel and Greg Jacobs have created a superb documentary that feels like Spellbound but with more purpose. It doesn’t hit you over the head with a moral and it’s not just about showing these kids off and the amazing skills they hone through poetry: it’s about making a solid case for the importance of arts and how they can further connect troubled teens to the academic experience whereas without it you don’t know where they’d be. Clearly the kids in the film have a lot on their mind and want to speak out, and you can’t help but wonder how they would do so if not given the emotionally-charged platform of poetry.
Go out and find Louder Than a Bomb in your local theater, one way or another it’ll make you feel something.
"Louder Than a Bomb" opens May 18, 2011 and is not rated. Documentary. Directed by John Siskel, Greg Jacobs.