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Nova Venerable in LOUDER THAN A BOMB (Photo: Siskel/Jacobs Productions)

Directed & Produced by Greg Jacobs & Jon Siskel
Released by Balcony Releasing
USA. 99 min. Not Rated

Poetry slams began in the 1980s, combining the performance of original poetry with hip hop styling before a scoring panel of judges. They have been popularized since 2002 by Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam on Broadway and in an HBO series. Over 20 years, Louder Than a Bomb, the annual Chicago-based poetry slam competition for high school students, has grown to attract more than 600 teenagers from over 60 area schools, who prepare during the academic year to compete as teams of five before five judges. The winners perform on Chicago Public Radio.

Louder Than a Bomb, the documentary, follows the mode of other kids-in-competition films during a year-in-the-life of a diverse group of intense, voluble competitors, though the focus is mostly on one talented star on each team. African-American Nate, at Michelle Obama’s alma mater Whitney Young Magnet High School on the South Side, leaves behind basketball and NBA fantasies to write poems about sports and dreams of rap stardom. Bi-racial Nova, of Ernest Hemingway’s alma mater Oak Park/River Forest High School on the West Side, moves her teammates—and the judges—when she pens a tribute to her disabled brother. Adam, of the top academic Northside College Prep, is a flamboyant artiste (complete with beret), who learns to go beyond showboating for applause when he poignantly reflects on his family’s Jewish heritage.

The filmmakers spend a lot of the screen time with the Steinmenauts team of Hugh Hefner’s alma mater Steinmetz Academic Centre on the Northwest Side—Big C, Lamar, Jésus, Kevin, and She’Kira. They won a surprise victory the previous year in their inaugural participation, and these kids from the poor side of the tracks are determined to prove that wasn’t a fluke. Not that theirs is the only participating school with metal detectors at the entrance, but the coach has to deal with the same negative behavior problems as in the Chicago high school economics experiment seen in the “Can a 9th Grader Be Bribed to Succeed” segment from Freakonomics. As this film progresses month by month, then week by week, to the competition, sympathy builds for them.

So it’s a shame, and a wasted opportunity for a celebration of the writing process, that there is more focus on the showy slam than the intellectual sweat of writing poetry. One briefly glimpsed coach suggests images to expand on, but the kids aren’t seen spending much time editing their poems. It becomes that much more significant when, in the midst of the finals, Adam realizes his poem needs to be reworked, and he pulls an all-nighter to revise his entry. The result is not just a wonderful poem, but, for the filmmakers, one of those few moments when the magical hard work of the creative process is successfully captured on screen.

All competitors in such high school competition films grin and bear it that winning isn’t everything, that it’s really about meeting great people and getting closer to friends who become family, like in Matthew D. Kallis’s upcoming documentary Most Valuable Players, about Glee-like choirs in Pennsylvania. But how the best performers—and the best young poets—dig down deep and polish their work finally makes this a more satisfying film. Nora Lee Mandel
May 18, 2011



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