Analyzing the documentary medium is among the trickier forms of cinematic criticism—it’s easy to overrate a picture on the basis of an engaging topic matter, rather than any real talent from the filmmakers at hand. In the case of Marilyn Agrelo’s cutesy-poo Mad Hot Ballroom, I left the theater moderately impressed by its warmth, and its tender portrayal of the dance programs that now permeate the New York public school system. After a bit of reflection, though, my (already tempered) enthusiasm began to wane further. Firstly, I realized my understanding of the program’s importance had nothing to do with Mad Hot Ballroom’s editing or direction, and everything to do with my current—and ex—girlfriends being teachers in the very system the film depicts. There’s no background on what these kids are escaping, no behind-the-scenes examinations of their home lives, or even what impact the dancing has on their, you know, schoolwork. Were I not from Manhattan, I can’t imagine gleaning anything from Mad Hot Ballroom beyond a desire to pinch those ragamuffin’s precious cheeks.
Mad Hot Ballroom doesn’t follow Spellbound‘s lead in giving us protagonists to cheer for: by tracking three schools’ efforts to reach the finals, we never form a bond with any of them. That would be acceptable if Agrelo’s decision was based on key distinctions in how the programs were run at different public schools, but to these eyes, there was no difference. Everything was identical—encourage, smile, occasionally softly chastise, rinse, repeat. Why not just follow one school, allowing an emotional bond between viewer and onscreen ‘heroes’ to materialize? There’s not enough meat on Mad Hot Ballroom’s bones to warrant a 110 minute run-time: in fact, the filmic drumstick is completely picked clean half-an-hour in. And, topping it off, seeing David LaChapelle’s riveting Rize later the same day sent my feelings about Mad Hot Ballroom plummeting even further (I actually wonder if my rating is too generous, but its heart is in the right place, and there’s nothing offensive about it…plus, I did learn something. So, I’ll leave it where it is.)
For every Mad Hot Ballroom whiff—background, intensity, diversity of subject manner, etc—Rize responds with a barrage of line-drive doubles and home runs. Set in South Central L.A., LaChapelle illustrates the origin of krumpin’—a frenetic free-for-all dance style that’s an outlet for emotional and intellectual frustration in the hood. Every gyration is unique, every morning the dawn of a new take on this fascinating activity. While the footage of the technique itself is mesmerizing in and of itself, what puts Rize so far above Mad Hot Ballroom is what LaChapelle builds off of it. Superb editing keeps us vested in the multiple characters without overextending any of them and, at 84 minutes, we’re left craving more. Interviews with krumpers of all age groups enlighten the audience on just what these kids are escaping from, and several tragic incidents somberly remind us that as magnetic as krumpin’ is (as well as a potent escape from Southern California’s gang-infested misery) it can only take these troubled youths so far—the solution to the gunshot-riddled slums and ghettos is buried much deeper, and its going to take a societal overhaul to significantly improve things. In the meantime, though, seeing a five-year old contort their body in an awesome show of pent-up fire on the Lakers home court is significantly more moving than never-ending close-ups of NYC children’s wide smiles. Rize is full of sugar-rush adrenaline, but it also has the presence of mind to cool our enthusiasm enough to pierce through to its issues’ core, lending a balance to the work that Mad Hot Ballroom is sorely lacking.
Mad Hot Ballroom – 40/100
Rize – 71/100