Louder Than a Bomb is an annual team poetry slam contest that began in 2001. The contestants being students representing around sixty Chicago area schools. It’s also the title of a dynamic and uplifting documentary about that event. On the surface it feels as though the picture closely follows the template of other docs about schools kids challenging themselves via a unique after school activity (think Spellbound or Mad Hot Ballroom). That’s a formula for a reason, so there’s no reason to hold it against them. But in reality, the film peaks in a way that’s somewhat different and is dramatically very effective.
The filmmakers followed four teams, and this film absolutely shines due to the energy and raw skill of the high school age participants. This isn’t quite the poetry I remember from my high school writing club (and not just because of the lesser focus on death and suicide). It’s raw and powerful, and chronicles both the joy and the anguish in the students’ lives. The film gets the feel so right that there are moments where it’s an act of will not to jump up and cheer along with the slam audience onscreen.
If for some reason the participant’s verbal and literary talents don’t engage you, then the personal content of their poetry will. It’s very hard not to impacted by what is taking place onscreen, and the overall message is so positive that even some of the heartbreaks of the teams will still leave one optimistic about their futures.
One of the unique aspects of the competition is that groups enter as teams, taking what could be an extremely individualistic pursuit and adding on a requirement that kids work together. The teamwork and the coaching required to bring it out adds a depth beyond just the written word everyone is working on.
The competition itself consists of poetry performed both by individual and group. Each team is headed by one or two coaches who work with them throughout the year to write and hone their performances. There are quite a few focus points throughout the endeavor, but it felt to me as though The Steinmenauts (from Steinmetz High School) were the center of the film’s dramatic universe. The Steinmenauts were surprise winners in the prior year, their first entering. Struggling with issues holding the team together but with incredible talent, they deliver a performance late in the running that is guaranteed to get you to sit up and take notice. Actually across the board, the amount of talent on display is striking. I’m not going to attempt to run it down, as watching the competitors and realizing you’re likely seeing writers at the start of long and fruitful careers is a good part of the fun.
In every way Louder than a Bomb really lets the various personalities shine through and made me care about the kids involved. There’s a motto of the event bandied around several times that goes something like, “It’s not the points that are the point.” By the end when some win and some lose the truth of that statement became evident. And perhaps that is what propels the film to the upper ranks of academic achievement documentary films I’ve seen.
And no, you don’t need to like poetry to enjoy this film. Though you may afterward start to question whether a lifelong belief that you fall in that category may have been based on some bad assumptions. I’d highly suggest trying to catch it Friday or Saturday evening when both the director and one of the artists in the film Lamar Jorden are scheduled to attend.