High-school life as depicted in movies or TV rarely has anything to do with actual high school; it’s more about some middle-aged writer’s memories of old teensploitation flicks, mixed with an unhealthy dose of wish-fulfillment. The documentary Louder Than A Bomb is a different kind of high-school movie, brimming with life and hope instead of social-climbing, bullying, and furtive first kisses. It should hit home with anyone whose experience of adolescence involved creativity, intellectual exploration, and getting to know and love people outside their immediate social circles.
Directors Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel spent a year documenting four Chicago-area high schools—and three students in particular—as they prepared to compete in the annual “Louder Than A Bomb” teen poetry-slam competition. Forget the cliché of the sullen coffeehouse poet, reading to a handful of beleaguered java-junkies. These kids shout about their lives to auditoriums full of their peers, who yell back their approval, and weeks later, can still quote each other’s best lines. Jacobs and Siskel have stumbled onto an impressive slate of poets: Nate Marshall, a self-proclaimed nerd who was picked on as a kid for his advanced vocabulary and learned to use wordplay as a weapon; Nova Venerable, a mature young woman who helps takes care of her special-needs brother and uses poetry to vent her anger at her absentee father; Adam Gottlieb, a child of privilege who takes nothing for granted, and is known as much for being one of the biggest LTAB cheerleaders as for his energetic verse; and the slammers from Steinmetz, whose swagger is justified by their innovative poems about poverty and violence. If nothing else, Louder Than A Bomb serves as a permanent record of some phenomenally talented young writers and performers.
The actual filmmaking in Louder Than A Bomb isn’t as invigorating. Jacobs and Siskel take a straightforward talking-head-interviews/fly-on-the-wall/performance-footage approach, and don’t always fill in the gaps with hard data, instead letting the subjects define their own circumstances, with little corroboration or context. But the movie is snappily edited, and has a strong soundtrack that mixes jazz, hip-hop, and indie-rock (which pretty well defines the styles of the poets as well). Louder Than A Bomb deals with a few bigger questions—like whether competition gets in the way of art, or whether it inspires the competitors to be better—but mostly, it’s about how an amazing program has helped bring the best out of these kids, and how these kids have shown the ability to amaze right back.