The indispensable documentary of Hip Hop’s early roots in New York City finally arrives on Blu-ray
A documentary originally intended for PBS in 1983, Style Wars went on to introduce mainstream America to the growing NYC youth culture that would eventually become known as Hip Hop. Before Rap music was a primary component of pop culture, there were b-boys in New York City thriving on “bombing” subway trains with artistic designs and staging breakdancing contests.
Primarily focusing on graffiti artists and the first glimpses of breakdancing, director Tony Silver’s inviting documentary is a lovingly crafted ode to what had been a widely misunderstood subculture at the time. It made a legend of its participants, making names like Crazy Legs and Seen recognizable to this day in the Hip-Hop community. Style Wars is a vital portrait of that place and time, capturing the original spirit of hip hop better than any other film. It is an essential timepiece.
Graffiti artists had invented an entirely new form of art with cheap spray paint and their canvas, NYC’s vast network of subway trains. Children born this century will hardly recognize the world of New York City seen in Style Wars. The year is 1982, and the great metropolis had yet to be sanitized from the dirt and grime it had picked up in the 1970s. Wildly inventive graffiti covers its moving trains, all over the five Burroughs. Director Tony Silver brilliantly avoids almost any narration, instead employing fairly honest street interviews with teenagers the culture thrived on in NYC. Providing an opposing viewpoint, former mayor Ed Koch and a police officer comment about the pernicious effects of graffiti, which they claim is malicious vandalism that costs the government serious money.
Style Wars is a raw, sympathetic look at the culture, passing little judgment on its actions. Style Wars is fondly remembered because it celebrated the artistic creativity of the graffiti artists and showcased them in their natural habitat. Everything that is shown feels entirely authentic, informing viewers of the extensive planning involved with the visually dynamic murals. There is a frenetic exuberance when the Rock Steady Crew, led by Crazy Legs, battles a rival crew of breakdancers using acrobatic moves that had never been seen on national television before Style Wars.
Having not seen Style Wars in many years, I was worried the documentary might not hold up to the fond nostalgia it held in my memory. That could not be farther from the truth, Style Wars remains a captivating look into New York City’s street culture. Told directly from the perspective of actual graffiti artists, or “bombers” as they preferred, it provided a window into the nascent community of Hip hop that few other sources can match. Director Tony Silver and producer Henry Chalfant ended up making a lively documentary that made its mark and is still fondly remembered. Style Wars is both informative and entertaining, a rare feat in documentary filmmaking.
This new Blu-ray edition sports a brand-new 2K film transfer from the original 16mm film elements. The occasional still photographs have been newly scanned as well. While the grainy 16mm cinematography is not to the pristine clarity of modern footage, this documentary has never looked this good before. The new film scan lovingly captures every nuance and detail contained in the 16mm elements. Independent distributor MVD Visual has done a superb job bringing it to 1080P resolution.
The film transfer avoids sharpening and shows no evidence of low-pass filtering. They did create a 2K digital intermediate for it. It does appear some scratch removal was applied to the film print, cleaning up a few of the more battered-looking shots. Some slight telecine wobble and minor, random damage is apparent in the print. The AVC video encode handles the heavy grain with few problems as the compressionist did an excellent job at minimizing artifacts in an encode that only average 19 Mbps. Its film-like fidelity is excellent, uncannily replicating true 16mm film.
The main feature is windowboxed in an aspect ratio that appears close to 1.37. The weakest aspect is its washed-out color saturation. Colors lack the pop and fidelity of better film stock. They left things alone in the digital color timing; other distributors might have tried to increase the contrast and push the primary colors. The black-and-white shots are heavily underexposed, though the commentary reveals that was intentional by the cinematographer for effect.
One of Style Wars’ primary elements was its nod to the music popular in New York at the time, primarily classic Rap music from such luminaries as the Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash. Sparingly used between segue ways, it creates a perfect mood for the very urban setting. The primary audio is an expansive 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack with surprising fidelity. Since most of the documentary was shot on the streets of New York City, I would have guessed dialogue clarity might be a problem. That is not the case. Style Wars’ has perfectly intelligible dialogue and fantastic fidelity to its music. The mix is heavy on bass, emphasizing the bottom-shaking nature of the music.
A secondary stereo option has been included as a 2.0 PCM soundtrack. Listeners will prefer the wider 5.1 DTS-HD MA option. Optional English subs, found in a white font, are included. Both the film and the extras have closed captioning.
Wow, this is an unexpectedly dense and entertaining list of bonus features. The outtakes, running nearly 40 minutes, are superb and could practically be an extension of the main documentary. Provided in a very rare, translucent white keepcase, the people behind this set took their time in crafting a package with extreme care. There are must-see special features here for anyone with an interest in this documentary. Rarely do the bonus features provide this much context and help to tell their own story. International fans can rest easy: Style Wars has been coded for worldwide compatibility and is region free.
In Memoriam (44 Seconds in HD) – A short clip of director Tony Silver that ends in tribute to all the participants not with us anymore. Silver passed away in 2008.
Outtakes (39:29 in HD) – With the help of donors and fans from Kickstarter, the production team sorted through 30 hours of leftover material and came up with this slick piece that feels nearly as vibrant as Style Wars itself. One of the best bonus features I have ever reviewed, it is nearly as entertaining as the main documentary. Absolutely essential viewing for anyone that considers themselves a fan.
B-Boy Showcase (08:44 in HD) – A montage of breakdancing battles between the legendary Rock Steady Crew and their rivals, Dynamic Rockers.
Style Wars In The Cutting Room (25:57 in SD) – In the summer of 1983, a camera crew captured the team of filmmakers behind Style Wars as they sliced the entire project together. This is an incredibly rare, vintage documentary, giving viewers extraordinary access to how a film is truly assembled behind the scenes. I have never seen anything like it from a Hollywood studio, because it shows the give-and-take nature of editing a film.
Audio Commentary by Director Tony Silver and Producer Henry Chalfant – A highly engaging chat by the two men most responsible for Style Wars. They provide background information on the production and an enormous amount of insight into the culture they documented.
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Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.