If Americans think they have a lock on b-boy culture, Benson Lee's infectiously energetic documentary proves, once and for all, that all the world's a "Planet B-Boy," from Germany to France to Japan, Denmark and South Korea. Can you imagine Greek b-boys twirling on their heads to bouzouki music? It's all here.
B-boy is kind of like break-dancing-plus and is an integral part of hip-hop culture. As a hip-hop veteran explains at the start of Lee's film, the four elements of the culture are b-boy dancing, DJ-ing, emceeing and graffiti, and they all grew out of American urban life as far back as the late '60s and '70s.
But if you think you've seen break dancing, you haven't seen anything until you see such b-boy crews as Gamblerz and Last for One of South Korea, Ichigeki of Japan, France's Phase T or Knucklehead Zoo from the United States. The boys develop intricate choreographed routines that are a lot more than just back flips, one-armed pivots or head spinning.
Many of the routines have themes as well. South Korea's Gamblerz, for example, work up a powerful re-creation of their nation's divided status, with some of the boys dressed as North Koreans, executing maneuvers to represent power, and the other boys evoking style and technique to represent South Korea. And in the end, inevitably, the boys join forces, all dressed alike in white, representing the hope for eventual reunification.
For black youths in the United States back in the day, break dancing was a way to burn off energy and affirm their identity with a dance style that represented their lives and culture. It's the same today for many of the young men of the various dance crews chosen to represent their respective countries at the annual Battle of the World b-boy competition in Germany. One young Japanese boy spends his days helping his widowed mother and his brother tend to their tea shop. Although she seems an unlikely fan of break dancing, she says she is very proud of her son.
A member of South Korea's Last for One stands next to his father as the two talk about their relationship. The young man says he has never been able to talk to his widowed father about his feelings, including his love of dancing and the pride he takes in it. The father recalls his son leaving an envelope for him with money he earned from dancing. It is not acceptable for a man to cry, the father says, but when he opened the envelope, tears streamed down his face.
While the film overflows with displays of explosive dancing and does a superb job showing the form's incredible complexity and technical diversity, "Planet B-Boy" starts to drag after a while. At 95 minutes, even with the great back stories and the superb dancing, the film is too long. Fortunately the pace picks up again with the finals of the Battle of the World, which are, hands-down, feet-in-the-air, more thrilling than the best "Dancing With the Stars" could ever hope to be.