The hip-hop culture that started (and is still identified by many) as strictly an urban African-American phenom proves to have permeated the globe in “Planet B-Boy.” Often exhilarating docu charts several breakdancing crews’ path to the Battle of the Year, which hosts national winners from 18 countries — not excluding Israel, Belgium or Latvia — in dazzling competitive displays. Sharp feature by Benson Lee (whose previous effort was the acclaimed but little-seen Sundance drama “Miss Monday” a decade ago) will play the Landmark Theaters circuit starting March 21. Niche theatrical, DVD and broadcast sales in various territories should follow.
Called “as legitimate a dance as any other dance that has existed” by one aficionado, the form was initially accorded little respect due to faddish ’80s co-opting by the mainstream, notably in one “Flashdance” sequence excerpted here. In pop-culture terms, it was dead by 1990, when fan/entrepreneur Thomas Hergenrother started Battle of the Year in Hanover, Germany, to prove breakdancing (aka B-boying) was still very much alive. That first event attracted 400 viewers; now, 10,000 or so people come to its current home in the smaller burg of Brauschweig.
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“Planet” profiles the 2005 competition, starting with eliminations in each participating country. Five crews are given principal focus here, all with different regional styles: France’s Phase T, mostly North African young men plus one blond white boy, emphasize warmth and elegance; Latino-American group Knucklehead Zoo incorporate some of the showmanship endemic to their Las Vegas home.
Ichigeki (first seen parodying that “Flashdance” scene) bolsters Japanese crews’ reputation for innovative moves, while South Korea’s Gamblerz demonstrate the often mind-boggling technique associated with that country (which has gone hip-hop-crazy in just the past decade). Since the latter are guaranteed a slot as the prior year’s winners, there’s a second Korean crew: Last for One, consisting of eight earnest, poor friends from the rural south who’ve overcome considerable adversity just to get this far.
Each of the five groups is shown dancing in a clever, regionally characteristic setting, from Korean army barracks to the Vegas strip and the red-rock desert outside it. There are also plenty of individual characters to warm to — from the Last for One member anxious to make his worried father proud, to French towhead Lil Kev, who squirms as his mother admits she had racist attitudes before she got to know his black “big brothers.”
The competition itself, natch, provides considerable suspense as well as dazzling performances. In the kind of development documentarians pray for, the underdogs auds are most likely to root for emerge triumphant, their further success limned in a one-year-later epilogue.
Helmer-editor Lee, co-editor Jeff Marcello and d.p. Vasco Nunes (“DiG!”) have assembled a high-energy package, but mercifully stop short of the excess visual/editorial meddling that so often reduces dance to frenetically intercut, isolated body parts. Here, the full body in motion is always in frame, allowing viewers to fully appreciate the awesome moves.
Tech aspects are first-rate; ditto the zippy graphics and various-artists soundtrack (though oddly, the tracks the crews chose for competition aren’t so hot).
During closing credits, a sort of micro-docu provides the last word on hip-hop’s global reach, as it profiles a breakdancing class for Inuit kids in the Canadian Arctic Circle.