This is not your mother’s English class. In fact, this isn’t even your own English class. And it isn’t beatnik poets in basements surrounded by clouds of smoke with black berets either. No, this is poetry slam; a poetry slam contest to be precise. Louder Than a Bomb is a documentary about a Chicago high school poetry slam competition of the same name. It documents its participants, their lives, their writing, but most of all it documents an art form that, despite having roots in the past, most certainly belongs to today’s generation of teens.
As noted above, Louder Than a Bomb is a poetry competition for youth in Chicago, the largest of this type of event in the world. Founded in 2001, it has always been team-based, feeling that the emphasis should be on working together and supporting one another, rather than singling out single poets or performers. LTAB brings approximately 60 teams and over 600 kids together to celebrate spoken word poetry. LTAB is about finding your voice, having something to say, channeling your energy positivley, and most importantly, celebrating others while you’re being celebrated yourself. The documentary focuses on four teams from vastly different high schools, in vastly different areas of Chicago. The film follows each team from try-outs through the process of writing to the qualifying rounds of LTAB, ending with the finals. The work created by the teens in this film is unique to their generation, and has a relevance that much of today’s writing does not. It would appear that poetry is not, in fact, boring or lifeless. The energy, craft, skill and confidence to take words off a page and spit them out in front of a microphone to engage an audience is incredible. The fact that they are all under the age of 20 is nothing short of astonishing.
This film is a purely emotional journey. Sometimes it fills you with joy, gives you goosebumbs, and instills you with the desire to leap up and cheer. Sometimes it touches you, sending your heart go out to the kids on the screen, while they struggle against the cards life dealt them and to learn lessons ““ however hard ““ that will actually make them better later in life. What’s genuinely incredible about Louder Than a Bomb is that it never once makes the viewer feel manipulated, which is a startling achievement for a documentary packed with so many poignant issues. What directors Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel have achieved here, however, is highlighting those issues through the work each teen does, not by over dramatizing the issues at home. They let the poetry speak for itself, simply contextualizing it with background to show just how remarkable these young people are.
The film is incredible, make no mistake about that, but I was slightly perplexed by its structure in the last half. Despite starting out with a balanced look at four schools, by the end the film seems to focus only on one, while still highlighting a couple of single performers. It’s possible that this was due to solely to the competition itself (some schools don’t move on to further levels), but this isn’t made explicitly clear and it felt as though there was a specific slant towards one school. I don’t dispute that in those moments, the most interesting story is certainly with that school, but it felt as though people we had previously invested in had been abandoned.
While this isn’t a flawless documentary, its structure doesn’t matter because the fun and kinetic energy created simply by watching proves that when properly motivated, teens from all walks of life can come together, create art and, in fact, be louder than a bomb.
Louder Than a Bomb screens at Sprockets this weekend on Saturday, April 16 at 4:30 pm at TIFF Bell Lightbox. This will be your last opportunity to see this film on the big screen before the festival ends. I strongly suggest that you do not miss it.