The Story of How 'Beat Street' Went From a Box Office Failure to One of Hip-Hop's Most Important Movies
On June 8th, 1984 Beat Street was released to disappointing results. So how did it eventually become one of the most fundamental hip-hop movies of all time?
In 1983, three landmark hip-hop films were released: Wild Style, Style Wars, and Breakin’ And Enterin.’ Film studios saw the response to these three independent films on the festival circuit and in limited box office runs. They then wanted to capitalize off of the growing popularity of hip-hop.
Cannon Films was rushing to put out Breakin,’ a Los Angeles-based film derived from Topper Carew’s documentary Breakin’ and Enterin.’ While New World Pictures had a hip-hop themed film in production starring Lorenzo Lamas called Body Rock. Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier were both trying to develop their own projects. All would be set in New York City.
Harry Belafonte tapped Stan Lathan to direct his Orion Pictures feature tentatively titled Street Beat, slated for a June 8th, 1984 release. He also reached out to renowned producer Arthur Baker to handle the music. Sidney Poitier would pivot his project to deal more with a group of aspiring dancers from the Midwest seeking fame in NYC, pushing its theater debut back to early 1985. He reached out to Quincy Jones’ Qwest Records to handle the soundtrack for his film, which was finally released as Fast Forward.
Street Beat borrowed liberally from the storylines and themes of Wild Style and Style Wars, movies the wider film audience hadn’t seen. Legendary graf writers PHASE2 and BLAST were brought in as consultants and several luminaries from the hip-hop world made cameos in the film. The film’s premise was to follow the ascent of a promising Bronx MC/DJ named Double K; his younger brother, a talented B-Boy named Lee; and his best friend Ramon better known as the burgeoning graf writer RAMO. While this sounded great on paper there were several things that hindered the film that would eventually become Beat Street from becoming the breakout success Orion Pictures hoped it would become.
Harry Belafonte and his partner David Picker shot it in the Bronx during winter, opting to tell a story that spanned between the Christmas holiday and climaxed on New Year’s Day. At the time, it didn’t seem like a problem until the film opened at the outset of Summer 1984 and followed Breakin‘ — one of the biggest box office success stories of the Spring — which was set in sunny California. It was tough to suspend belief and watch a movie set in the winter when you’re wearing shorts in the movie theater.
There were several more issues preventing audiences from suspending belief in the theater. For one, the authenticity of the film. Puma outfitted gear for Beat Street in hopes it would become the winner against Breakin.’ But despite appearances from Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force, Jazzy Jay, Grandmaster Melle Mel & The Furious Five, Rock Steady Crew, Doug E. Fresh, and more, Beat Street was undermined by several choices made by the studio and creative team.
RAMO’s “burners” were clearly not made using aerosol/spray paint. They were hand-painted by members of the film’s art department and looked out of place when used in slides to open the film next to pictures of well-known graf pieces taken by Charlie Ahearn and Marty Cooper. Double K often sounded awkward while trying to rap on beat. Ideally, the Beat Street versus Bronx Rockers battle would’ve happened to traditional B-Boy selections and breakbeats but it instead occurred over Arthur Baker’s instrumental “Breaker’s Revenge.”
The love story between Double K and City College student Tracy, played by Rae Dawn Chong, seemed to be forced by the studio and the finale should have ended after Grandmaster Melle Mel & The Furious Five performed, but instead it concluded with Bernard Fowler and the choir doing “Believe It.” There were other clunky moments and scenes where actors delivered lines that didn’t ring true for audiences. But that was par for the course with many early ’80s films; the actors may not have been real hip-hoppers, but hip-hoppers damn sure weren’t professional actors.
Since Beat Street followed Breakin’ it had to provide bigger and more memorable moments. Outside of the Rock Steady Crew vs. New York City Breakers battle at the Roxy, Beat Street simply didn’t deliver enough. It was apparent Beat Street had definitely lost both the box office and pop culture wars in Summer 1984.
There were big hopes attached to the Beat Street soundtrack initially, enough that Atlantic had planned to release three volumes of music from the film. However, as the soundtrack received its RIAA Gold certification on July 20th, 1984 Beat Street was only showing in 211 theaters nationwide and the next week was its last screening. Breakin’ also spent its last week in theaters the same week. The main difference was Breakin’ earned twice as much — with only a month headstart.
To add insult to injury, the Breakin’ soundtrack on Polydor was certified Platinum its final week in the movies behind the hits “There’s No Stopping Us” by Ollie & Jerry and “99 ½” by Carol Lynn Townes. There was a second volume of the Beat Street soundtrack released but it sold significantly fewer units since the film was out of theaters and there were no hits on it. No third volume was ever put into production.
Beat Street fell short in a lot of respects: mainly watching actors we could tell weren’t authentic hip-hoppers using slang and engaging in cultural activities they clearly never did before. The fact remains we got to see many of the best and brightest in hip-hop culture onscreen in a major studio film in 1984. Beat Street is the film where fans got to see deceased legends like Keith Cowboy, Buck 4, Kuriaki and Glide Master in action. It’s the film that introduced a 17-year-old Doug E. Fresh to the world and made people curious enough to search for Wild Style and Style Wars to see where Beat Street got its storylines from.
What followed just three weeks after Beat Street opened was the debut of the Graffiti Rock pilot which drew respectable ratings nationwide on syndicated television in 88 different markets. The show starred the Treacherous Three and New York City Breakers who both appeared in Beat Street. Robert Taylor, the B-Boy who played Lee in Beat Street, made the cover of the July 2nd, 1984 edition of Newsweek which did a feature about the “breakdance” craze.
The Fresh Fest Tour launched on September 3rd, 1984 featuring Run DMC, Kurtis Blow, Whodini, The Fat Boys, and Newcleus. Kurtis Blow, Whodini, and The Fat Boys would go on to release seminal rap albums that fall. In September 1984, a syndicated TV special called The Pilot — about a B-Girl set in Los Angeles with a score/soundtrack by The Egyptian Lover — premiered.
Hip-hop had gone mainstream and Beat Street played a crucial part in that.
While Beat Street didn’t become a huge hit in theaters, it took on a new life when it entered the top video rental charts the week of October 27th, 1984. It stayed there for the next 13 weeks where it generated over $1.5 million in rental revenue at a time when less than 25 percent of American households had a VCR. Beat Street became a cult hit in the following decades until the present day where it’s now regarded as a classic.
Breakin,’ in retrospect, is far cornier and cringeworthy. And its other competitor Body Rock is widely regarded as one of the worst films of all time. Beat Street aged better than its contemporaries. And without the without film, we never get to a place where hip-hop culture is driving youth culture globally.
Dart Adams is Boston-based creative who has written for NPR and Producers I Know. Follow his latest and greatest @Dart_Adams on Twitter.