Think breakdancing went the way of the Rubik's Cube and the Chia Pet? Think again. It went global, and Planet B-Boy, a rousing documentary by Benson Lee, shows why. Featuring crews from all over the world, the movie presents move after move that defies belief. And you start to wonder why this homegrown art form has never gotten the respect it deserves, even within the hip-hop community. Is it because it's so hard to describe? I'm not even going to try. Suffice it to say that these guys (and they do seem to be mostly guys) manage to evoke, at various times, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Fred Astaire, James Brown, Marcel Marceau and - oh, I don't know - Nadia Comaneci. And their skillz, let me tell you, are madder than ever.
The documentary is built around the so-called Battle of the Year, an annual event held in Braunschweig, Germany, wherein teams representing 18 countries - mostly Asian and European, but also Israel, South Africa and the good ol' U.S. of A. duke it out on the dance floor. We join each of the finalists while they're still back home, vying to represent their respective nations, and the movie assumes the familiar form of a preparing-for-the-big-showdown documentary. Individual dancers are profiled, although not as thoroughly as we might have wished. The guys from South Korea and Japan seem to have major issues with their parents, for instance, but Lee is largely unable to penetrate the families' sense of privacy and emotional restraint.
What he is able to do is provide us with group portraits. And it's interesting how different the approaches are. South Korea is known for its acrobatics, Japan for its choreography, France for its musicality, the U.S. for its (what else?) rugged individualism. But the judges aren't looking for nationalist tendencies per se. They're looking for that perfect combination of athleticism, artistry and attitude. If you didn't know better, you'd swear you were witnessing World War III out there; the final battles look like outtakes from the gang warfare in West Side Story. But that's not the way the dancers themselves see it. "Our flag is hip-hop," a member of the French team says, a cause you may want to pledge yourself to after watching Planet B-Boy. If the dancing doesn't knock your socks off, you must already be barefoot.