|Nova Venerable in Louder than Bombs.|
Words and images
By Don Simpson
Call me naïve, but I knew nothing of the existence of poetry slams until 2004, thanks in no small part to a co-worker at the time -- the now 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for Poetry award winner, Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz, who appears in Louder Than a Bomb as an emcee. As it turns out, the first poetry slam dates back to November 1984, when Marc Smith organized a poetry slam event at the Get Me High Lounge in Chicago. Poetry slams have since spread like wildfire around the world, resurrecting the art of poetry from its ashes and fostering a new generation of poets.
Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel’s (the late film reviewer Gene Siskel's nephew) documentary Louder Than a Bomb is about the 2008 Chicago-area poetry slam competition of the same name. Louder Than a Bomb is the nation's largest poetry slam competition with teams and soloists from approximately 60 high schools competing. Jacobs and Sickel opt to hone in on four teams: Steinmetz, Oak Park/River Forest High School, Whitney Young Magnet High School and Northside College Prep. Steinmetz is a troubled inner city school that won first place in their first ever foray into the world of slam poetry at the 2007 Bomb, so the self-proclaimed “Steinmenauts” (Lamar Jordan, Kevin Harris, Jésus Lark, Charles Smith and She'Kira McKnight) are an obvious choice for Jacobs and Sickel to follow in 2008. The other three teams are presumably chosen because of their gifted solo talents: Nova Venerable (Oak Park/River Forest High School), Nate Marshall (Whitney Young Magnet High School) and Adam Gottlieb (Northside College Prep).
Almost half of this 100-minute documentary takes place during the 2008 Louder Than a Bomb competition. The crowded environment seems to handcuff Jacobs and Siskel’s ability to capture the content in any kind of aesthetically pleasing manner, but the amazing performances that they capture on tape is sure to distract most audiences from the shoddy cinematography. Before we arrive at the Louder Than a Bomb competition, however, we are told the riveting back stories of the Steinmenauts, Venerable, Marshall and Gottlieb -- a clever, yet often used, directorial tactic to get the audience to be more emotionally invested into the outcome of the competition.
The Louder Than a Bomb competition stresses that “the point is not the points, it’s the poetry”while Louder Than a Bomb, the documentary, serves as a means of questioning the legitimacy of judging creativity and talent. Will the most deserving team and soloist win? Better yet, how do you define “most deserving”?
Louder Than A Bomb also showcases the importance of broadening the social circles of adolescents, while also nurturing their creative impulses and intellectual exploration. Poetry may not provide these kids with the financial support that they will need to survive in the big bad world, but it does appear to provide them with everything else they need – especially companionship, love and happiness.
Louder Than A Bomb bears an uncanny resemblance to Spellbound, Wordplay, and even Hoop Dreams – but I suspect Jacobs and Siskel will be just fine being lumped in with that family. The “competition” -- whether it be athletic, intellectual or creative -- as a sub-genre of documentary cinema seems to be a favorite of audiences nowadays, and I suspect this is because of the tension and emotional drama that is inherent within the subject matter. Of course the key to this form of documentary filmmaking is the initial choice of who the director decides to follow during the course of the competition. I do not know how they came upon their subjects, but Jacobs and Siskel made a remarkably sound decision when they chose to follow the Steinmenauts, Venerable, Marshall and Gottlieb.