Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel’s “Louder Than a Bomb” is an affecting and superbly paced celebration of American youth at their creative best. Inexplicably missing from the country’s major fests, this saga of Chicago high schoolers competing in the city’s popular annual Louder Than a Bomb teen poetry festival is the rare good-hearted film that wears its political correctness on its sleeve yet exudes honesty throughout. Los Angeles and New York DocuWeeks slots may give theatrical hopes a boost.
The filmmakers aim for a rounded look at poet-performers from four Chicago-area schools, but their sympathies are clearly with the underdog poetry crew at Southside’s Steinmetz High School, since that’s frankly where the drama is. Surprise winners in 2007, the “Steinmenauts” are as bonded as a family, but coach James Sloan has to apply all of his patience to keep the sometimes unruly teens on track. His faceoff with the three stars of the group — Lamar Jorden, Kevin Harris and Charles Smith — swings the team from near-catastrophe to reinvigorated unity.
Equally affecting are two of Steinmetz’s most serious challengers: Nova Venerable from Oak Park/River Forest High School, and Nate Marshall from Whitney Young Magnet High School. Venerable’s poetry is beautifully crafted but raw autobiography, containing observations about her impossible father and special-needs younger brother that are almost pointillist in their detail. Marshall displays prodigious talent, whipping out wordplay the way other kids punch out cell-phone texts, and doing it with a keen sense of wit.
None of this prepares the viewer for the bomb that is Adam Gottlieb (from tony Northside College Prep), whose first reading at the 20-minute mark, of a poem celebrating poetry, announces a promising new American talent. It’s difficult to resist the comparison to Allen Ginsberg in Gottlieb’s nearly breathless recitation, his use of incantation and rhythmic attack, and the sense of an epic unfolding before our ears. His subsequent reading, on his Jewish roots in Chicago, is pitched in an entirely different register and suggests a novelistic sensibility.
With characters like these, the contest may seem an afterthought. But Jacobs and Siskel (Gene Siskel’s nephew) invigorate what has become a cliche of American docs by cleverly constructing the film’s second half so that it climaxes at an unexpected point, as the Steinmenauts wage a come-from-behind push in an attempt to reach the contest finals.
Understated in “Louder Than a Bomb” is how the teen poetry slam brings the city’s typically segregated neighborhoods together, as the elevation of language to the level of art serves as a unifying force. To put it mildly, by the time this is over, the adults are suitably impressed.
Camera coverage of many key moments, including shooting of some stunning readings, is key to the film’s vitality, along with John Farbrother’s sharp editing. Music supervision is uncredited, but the co-directors presumably oversaw an impressive selection of songs that are laid into the soundtrack as if they were an original score.