Louder Than a Bomb
Teen poets experience power of possibilities
Remember when being a young poet meant solitude, pensive looks, and the glorious martyrdom of being misunderstood? By contrast, the high school kids in “Louder Than a Bomb’’ wield words like weapons of mutual salvation and they’re all in it together: pairs of friends, groups of teammates, a city of teenagers jostling with possibilities.
The city is Chicago, which has been hosting the annual Louder Than a Bomb poetry slam for eight years when the documentary opens, in 2008. The students come from all corners of the city — the inner-city crew from Steinmetz Academic Centre in L-Town, the rich white kids of Northside College Prep — and they compete in both solo performances and team events. Think of it as “Glee’’ without music. Without a net, too.
Co-directors Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel (the latter the nephew of the late film critic Gene Siskel) use an upbeat musical score and fluid editing to put us right into it; the film’s propulsive without being pushy. And the students just break your heart. “Louder Than a Bomb’’ focuses on four schools out of the 46 that enter and four incredible writer/performers who you sense aren’t the best but simply the mean. They represent, in more ways than one.
You can see which dramas the filmmakers are drawn to. In 2007, Steinmetz participated for the first time and won first place; now they’re back to prove it wasn’t a fluke. At first glance, Lamar, Kevin, Jesus, and Big C, the team’s stars, fit every quaking suburbanite’s image of young urban blackness, but of course the vulnerability under the rough surface keeps popping out. (Big C, in particular, cries at everything.) We see their terror at being blocked, at coming up short, and also their pride in stringing together phrases that percussively, persuasively paint their lives.
Just as compelling is Nova, from Oak Park and River Forest High School in the western suburbs. As she performs pieces about caring for her deadbeat father at age 10 and her autistic brother at 13, you understand why she’s so eerily self-contained at 17, and what her verse lacks in invention it makes up for in power.
The poetry in “Louder Than a Bomb’’ isn’t the small-press kind, although at times it comes close in fineness of observation. Rather, this child’s garden of verse is triangulated by rap, personal journals, and the Great Poets the students have read in school — Langston Hughes, Allen Ginsberg, and so on. A poised, ambitious senior like Nate Marshall can perform in a rap group in addition to consciously working on his writing craft, watching closely to see where the strands cross and separate. All boundaries are permeable; everything feeds into everything else.
The movie has a breakout star but, oddly, it isn’t sure what to do with him. Adam Gottlieb is a Jewish kid from Northside with a flowing hipster ponytail and one of those radiant personalities that endears him to everyone, even his rivals. (Even his rivals’ coaches.) When he performs a piece about his Yiddish grandma that touches on every outsider experience in the room or leads the audience up to the edge of delirious free fall with words, pacing, and rhythm, it’s very clear we’re seeing a natural in action.
We want more of Gottlieb but even he realizes he’s not the story here. “Louder Than a Bomb’’ is about the doors that language opens for those who don’t have privilege or the luxury of two supportive parents, and it’s especially about the joy that comes from stepping through that door to find a crowd of empathetic new companions. If you’re not paying attention you may miss who actually won the 2008 competition, but it’s not really the point. Neither is the poetry. The point is where the poetry takes you.