Long ago, before P. Diddy was remixing song by the Police and Universal was pouring millions into “8 Mile,” Charlie Ahearn was canvassing the streets of New York’s South Bronx for inspiration. The year was 1980, and the goal was to create a film that was part narrative and part documentary, revolving around what would later prove to be the pinnacle era in classic hip hop. Ahearn, a first-time writer, director and producer came away from the experience with the 1982 film “Wild Style” – a stylistically innovative and socially conscious story of graffiti artists, rap pioneers and the New York community that spawned it all. Showcasing some of the greatest names in both street art and hip hop of the time, “Wild Style” is driven by raw talent and genuine characterizations in a way that nearly all filmmakers since have failed to replicate.
The film revolves around street artist Ray/Zoro (played by Lee Quinones, the unsurpassed subway graffitist of his time) and his relationship with Rose (Sandra Fabara, who also topped the list of graffiti greats during the ’80s). Zoro struggles his way through the storyline, faced with opposition from his straight-laced brother, as well as pressure from a rising graffiti gang to market his work for profit. Introduced to a number of art dealers at a party that he attends with friend and club manager Phade, Zoro finally caves and is paid to paint a canvas piece for a wealthy gallery mogul. Still, he toils over the project and comes away from it more certain than ever that graffiti is more than just the final product. Quinones’ character drives home the idea that street art is just as much about the location and process as the physical painting, saying that “being a graffiti writer is taking the chances… taking the risks.” In the end, it is this idea of staying true to your art that brings Zoro his much-sought-after happiness. Despite the painfully low budget that Ahearn was allotted, the film feels almost intentionally unfinished and the acting, while mediocre, is still riveting only because you do not know how much of it is actually acted.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspects of “Wild Style” are its visual feats and interplay of concert video and fictional plotline. The film is accentuated by vivid shots of paint-adorned subways, storefronts and bedroom walls that work to showcase the colorful streets of New York during the height of the graffiti movement. In much the same way, the images of Phade (played by Fab 5 Freddy (Fred Brathwaite)) and his hip hop club’s late-night rap battles stand alone as historic pieces of documentary filmmaking. Rather than acting as a backdrop for the characters, the music serves as its own entity, with Ahearn creating what seems like two separate, yet interwoven films.
The final concert scene becomes both the climax and resolution for Zoro, as well as a significant piece of concert footage, as it captures classic hip hop in its prime. Featuring musical pioneers Grandmaster Flash, Grand Master Caz and Fab 5 Freddy, among many others, “Wild Style” captures the time perfectly and presents an amazing look at the true roots of hip hop as we know it today.
“Wild Style” is being shown in Campbell Hall on Wednesday, Feb. 9 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $6 for the public and free for students.