The Doc Option: Instead of ‘Battle of the Year’ Watch ‘Planet B-Boy’
The mainstream knows it as “breakdancing,” but those who actually practice it call it breaking, or b-boying. This dance style, popularly thought to have died out around the time Reagan left the White House, has in fact been steadily growing in popularity over the years. It’s just that a good deal of that growth has taken place outside of the United States. Film director Benson Lee noticed this phenomenon, and the result was Planet B-Boy, the subject of our first Doc Option column.
As explained by its practitioners in the doc, breaking isn’t just dance — it’s a culture all its own, a way of life. It encompasses not just dancing but MCing, DJing, and graffiti. And despite the form’s close ties to the street, the b-boys insist that it’s a legitimate avenue for self-expression, and not some element of crime or poverty.
The film does a lot to prove this claim, demonstrating how breaking has been embraced by a wide variety of people. Lee’s team travels to France, Japan and South Korea, among other locales, making the “planet” part of the movie’s title fully evident. In France, otherwise aimless youths in Chelles use b-boying as a way to positively channel their energy. In the “nails that stick out must be hammered down” society of Japan, b-boys use their dancing as a way to assert their individuality. As globalization encroaches, cultures blend at the edges and mix in curious ways. It’s fascinating to watch the ways that an art that originated in 1970s New York City is taken in by new devotees, who find ways to make it their own.
All these varying styles come to a head in the annual Battle of the Year competition, held in Germany. Crews of breakers from all over the world meet and duke it out on stage. Planet B-Boy follows five crews hoping to win the gold — one from America, one from France, one from Japan and two from South Korea. They perform elaborately choreographed routines in preliminary rounds, leading up to climactic face-offs between different crews, who must improvise their moves in a back-and-forth struggle to produce the most impressive performance.
The first half of the film visits with the individual breakers, often introducing the audience to their families and general life situations. It’s through them that we come to understand larger b-boy culture. Any film can throw explanatory montages and helpful infographics on a screen, but the best docs know that creating empathy is the best way to invest the viewer in a world with which they may not be familiar. Particularly poignant is one South Korean breaker’s relationship with his father, who generally frowns upon his lifestyle (this is a recurring trait among the parents featured in the movie). Slowly, they’ve come to an understanding, and it’s rather beautiful to hear them talk about it.
This emotional element is what so many documentaries about subcultures and competitions lack. Too many docs think they can skate by on a cool subject. They’ll prop up some token protagonists to root for and then see where they go. But we have to really care about the characters. And it’s not just a matter of relating to them, either. We need to understand what winning means to them, so that we can care about the outcome. And the great thing about Planet B-Boy is that it features multiple people whose goals are at odds with each other. Whereas most sport and dance films will have us root for one person or team while villianizing their competitors, this one pits people we like against one another. It makes for a more involving overall experience. And it reinforces the idea that the documentary is pushing: that breaking, as a form of self-expression, becomes in competition more about the exchange of ideas and identities than about winning.
Of course, selling the conflict means nothing if the conflict itself isn’t interesting. Lee and cinematographer Vasco Nunes have a visually enthralling subject to work with. Breaking is a full-body display. The b-boys move like they’ve been possessed by electric spirits, often putting their bodies at an apparent physical risk that would shame most professional wrestlers. Their raw power and emotion surge from the screen, and watching them work is thrilling.
Lee, Nunes, and producer Amy Lo used Planet B-Boy as the basis for the narrative film Battle of the Year. But the transition to fiction does not appear to have served the breaking world well, if the reviews are anything to go by. It seems that Battle of the Year approaches the same subject as Planet B-Boy from a much more traditional angle, being about a coach who trains a team of misfits so that they can triumph over wicked foreigners. This might be the only time that the “Doc Option” and its fictional counterpart were directed by the same person. If nothing else, it can serve as a case study in how the same people, working with the same subject, can produce drastically different results in two different art forms. But I’d bet on the doc being the superior piece.
Planet B-Boy is available on DVD and iTunes and streaming on Amazon and other VOD platforms.