Super Rize Me:
Photog David LaChapelle Rolls Sundance Buzz Doc

by Tony Phillips

All the world may indeed love a clown, but Sundance traditionally loves only clown hatin’ docs, whether it’s the Ronald McDonald-bashing of Super Size Me or the creepy clown prince of Capturing The Friedmans. Yet buried somewhere among the Sundance clown frown two-years ago was a short called Krumped from fine art and fashion photographer David LaChapelle. This film documented an inner city Los Angeles dance craze originated by "ghetto celebrity" Tommy the Clown. Krumping is movement deriving its vocabulary from equal parts clown, stripper and burn victim. It doesn't hurt if one's face is painted up in clown white and capped by a rainbow 'fro. This year, LaChapelle returned to the festival with a super-sized, documentary feature based on his short called Rize, which captures clown and krump dancers and finally restores all-American clown love to Sundance.

"I want to go with a company that understands this is not just a film for people who like hip-hop music," the Connecticut native explains in the blacked-out, Heiniken Lounge the afternoon after his Sundance premiere and party which saw not only 11 dancers from the film, but Paris and Nicky Hilton on the red carpet and his muse Pamela Anderson eventually pulled on-stage to krump and clown with the rest of the cast. "This is a crossover film I made for the cineplex as well as the art house and so the next step is making sure it gets into the eyes of the world." He’s fairly cocky in his baggy jeans and askew trucker hat. When asked about his pitch for the film, he replies, "I’m done pitching." And sure enough he is. A day later, Lions Gate has picks up worldwide rights on Rize paying an undisclosed amount for the June theatrical release.

Exuberance in the face of urban extremes is a signature of LaChapelle's print and music video work and he finds a perfect match here with this youth movement born of the L.A. riots that open the film. So strident is LaChapelle that he will only refer to these events as the "Rodney King riots." After screening his short last year, he remembers, "I realized I needed to show the neighborhood where they were from and a lot of people suggested helicopter footage of L.A. I thought, that's so lame. Then I started thinking about it and I realized all these kids were the children of Rodney King. They were either just born or little when Rodney King happened in 1992. In fact, that's the year Tommy started clowning."

But before one starts bracing for images of urban squalor, realize this is the same photographer whose idea of ghetto is one in which Britney Spears drips banjee gold and blows bubbles in front of a gushing, Sirk-red fire hydrant while barrio children splash at her feet. He's the man who put cyber-tranny Amanda Lepore on a Swatch, Gwen Stefani on death row and douses his muscle men in a cocktail of baby oil and blue eye-shadow. And Rize is no exception. Consider Lil C's trip to the beach. LaChapelle captures his subject krumping at sunset. The Santa Monica pier, with its honky tonk fluorescent, whirls in the background and the sky is a deep purple. "We just hit a sunset," LaChapelle laughs modestly. His subject, who goes to that strip of beach to krump when he's upset, told LaChapelle about the location and promised to give him a call the next time he was feeling blue. "So we wound up on that beach when the sun had just dipped," he continues, "it was perfect, but we literally just ran out onto that beach. We didn't even have music with us."

Cut to two-and-a-half years later and the self-financed project no longer lacks for a score. "It's a musical and a documentary," LaChapelle explains, "and as a musical you have to have a finale. You tell a story and the musical numbers push the story along. That's the classic idea of a musical, but this is a documentary too. I don't know if there's ever been a musical documentary, but that's the way I structured it." Fine. Just don't call krumping a trend. "I feel that their lives are not trends," he corrects, "they are a marginalized group of kids, but for them hip-hop is not a trend, it's their lifestyle. They are the next generation of hip-hop. They are the alternative to the commercialized, bling-bling, host a porno show and objectify women of hip-hop today. They treat their women well. They're not bitches and hos. They're sisters. Equals. They are the Kurt Cobains of hip-hop. What Nirvana was to hair bands, they are to hip-hop at this moment."

But what about after this moment? At Sundance alone one is able to witness a group of insiders crushing the door at the Rize premiere party insisting, "We're on Lil Tommy's list" or overhear a publicist call out, "Dragon, your car is waiting." While one certainly can't fault LaChapelle for unearthing the perfect documentary subject, one can wonder who'll swoop in to become to krumping what Madonna was to the Vogue? LaChapelle confronts the question of cultural imperialism that's plagued all anthropologists, from Margaret Mead to Jennie Livingston, with what's become his trademark: color.

"I was raised by a family that was color blind," LaChapelle explains, "I never heard the word nigger or faggot when I was a kid. It was the ugliest thing I ever heard when I moved to North Carolina and heard kids saying it. I don't see the world that way. I loved the dance. This wasn't about the poor black children. This was about heroes and athletes that I looked at as the opposite of imperialism. I looked at them like they were the imperialists. They are the heroes and Olympians. To me, I was honored just to be there and film. They could have been any color. Sure, they're marginalized, but so was I growing up. I was such an outcast at school. I was tormented and oppressed, I really felt that growing up in the late 70s. I never even thought about the issue of white or black. I don't think they did either. We just looked at each other as artists."

Certainly, Sundance jurors feel the same way, handing Jennie Livingston the Grand Jury Prize at 1991's festival for Paris Is Burning, her look at disenfranchised, queer Voguers cutting on New York's now defunct pier scene. LaChapelle couldn't be more thrilled with the comparison. "I love that film," he enthuses, "in fact, I'm in it. Only for like a third of a second at The Love Ball, but I am in it. I'm 20 years old or something. I have brown bangs and scream out, 'Work!'" And work is something he knows a little bit about juggling the many hats of video directing, commercial photography, fine art and now feature filmmaking with ease, but his grace note is making it look all look so easy. In fact, David LaChapelle is beyond easy. He’s cool. And one can be sure his many hats will have one thing in common: they’ll be tilted to the side.