He famously left his day job as the most gifted commercial photographer in 2006, dramatically and abruptly, escaping to a secluded Hawaiian paradise in some form of an extended mid-life crisis. After a long break from doing what he thought he loved, he rediscovered himself and became an Andy Warhol post-Factory of sorts, regarding his work more seriously than ever before. So the celebrities, the magazines covers, the elbow-rubbing, came to an end in pursuit of fine art. Now, LaChapelle would much prefer to make a social statement than put Lil' Kim on a crucifix and surround her with nuns for the sake of kitsch. He has directed a number of eye-catching music videos, but 2005's "Rize", a documentary, remains to be his only film. Though much of it is filmed in the same Technicolor, purposely campy ballpark of his other work, "Rize" is a surprisingly mature doc, especially when considering it was headed by the Fellini of photography.
LaChapelle gives us an inside look into the world of krumping, a highly emotional, movement intensive form of dance descended from clowning and perfected in the wake of the 1992 Rodney King riots. Found mostly in inner-city Los Angeles, where crime runs amok and pressure to join gangs is high, krumping is, for its most active participants, a life-saver, a persona defining hobby that gives them a reason to stay off the streets and entertain the public after hours upon hours of lightning paced practice. LaChapelle divides the film into three parts, the first introducing the krumping culture through interviews, the second connecting clowning with the dance in focus, the third climaxing with a thunderous battle of movement between the two rival krumping groups.
One might expect LaChapelle to let his tremendous stylistic abilities gloss over the more spit on the ground realities of "Rize" in favor of startling imagery, but his instantaneous recognizability takes a backseat to the hugely fascinating stories of the krumpers. These are not people who simply like to dance; they were saved by the art form, revitalized by it. Before he invented, or at least, nurtured, the style of krumping, Tommy Johnson, also known as "Tommy the Clown", was a drug dealer who spent five years in prison for his crimes. After his release, he was invited to a child's birthday party in hopes of entertainment - then and there, dressed as a clown, he kicked off a completely new dancing style that took much of Los Angeles by storm following the Rodney King riots. In the years following, he started a business, became a local legend, and took scads of at-risk adults under his wing.
Most inspiring is Christian "Baby Tight Eyez" Jones, who went from an atrociously tragic childhood straight into dancing success - because of krumping, the very idea of following in the footsteps of his deadbeat parents sounded like nightmare fantasy. He was good at something, had fun doing that something, and, in return, became a success in his own right. Jones is only one of the many kids Johnson has supported over the years, and "Rize" takes the time to get to know them. LaChapelle finds a good balance between spectacle and human drama, as willing to highlight remarkable dancing abilities as he is ready to underline the struggles many of his subjects face. As wonderful as krumping is for most of these people, it can hardly mask the harsh truths that overtake so much of the ghetto.
"Rize" is a solid documentary that does what a documentary should; introduce you to something completely new and make you suddenly care about it as though it were always part of your life. Though I wish it was a bit longer (we become invested in the cast), this is an energetically shot, empathetically made film.