A Hip Hop Classic From Back in the Day

Beat Street is a glorious time capsule that perfectly captures a bygone era in hip-hop history. It’s one of the few times that Hollywood would jump into a growing new field and get it right. Beat Street features early hip-hop pioneers such as Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five, Afrika Bambaataa and a young Kool Moe Dee as part of the Treacherous Three.

The movie is a pitch-perfect ode to the rising new hip-hop culture from New York City that had been sweeping America in the early Eighties. With all due respect to the great Krush Groove and others, Beat Street is the quintessential hip-hip movie. Released in 1984 as part of a hip-hop wave from Hollywood including Breakin’ and others, Beat Street to its credit takes direct inspiration from the influential 1983 documentary Style Wars. It paints a convincingly authentic group of b-boys living the dream in New York City.

Succinctly covering the four elements of classic hip-hop street culture, from rapping to graffiti, Beat Street includes a fully developed, flowing narrative focused on two key characters living in the Bronx. The Bronx was the early epicenter for the burgeoning rap scene and Beat Street thrives in the gritty streets of New York City before it was cleaned up.

Kenny Kirkland (Guy Davis) is a rising DJ with aspirations to become a music producer. His Puerto Rican friend Ramon (Jon Chardiet) is an unemployed graffiti artist, spraying his tag name of RAMO all over the city’s subway trains. The young men are both gifted in their fields. Kenny is DJing at Kool Herc’s night club, a hot spot for hip-hop music. He dreams of playing the Roxy, the legendary NYC club. Writing this review, I was sad to discover it closed down for good in 2007.

Beat Street was one of the first opportunities for Americans outside of New York City to see this new form of dancing.

Kenny’s younger brother Lee (Robert Taylor) is a member of a breakdancing crew that has a growing rivalry with another crew. Including actual members of famous breakdancing groups like the Rock Steady Crew and New York City Breakers, Beat Street was one of the first opportunities for Americans outside of New York City to see this new form of dancing.

Their electric dance moves often come about in mock dance battles staged in public venues, confusing the police that have no idea what is going on with them. There is a running sentiment throughout Beat Street that parents and older people have no idea what hip hop really means to these young people, mistakenly confusing it with gang activity.

Kenny’s music and Lee’s breakdancing eventually catch the interest of Tracy (Rae Dawn Chong), a local choreographer interested in the new street culture with its exciting ideas. Rae Dawn Chong was a rising actress that would soon hit stardom for a brief moment after Beat Street with roles in Commando and The Color Purple. She’s perfect as Kenny’s romantic interest, an outsider to his hip-hop world. Ramon loves tagging subway trains with distinctive and beautiful graffiti. His nemesis is a rival tagger that goes by “Spit.”

I may lose all reviewing credibility when I mention that Beat Street is a movie I’ve loved since I first watched it decades ago. Its smooth story and likable characters perfectly captured the spirit and ethos of the hip-hop scene when it was still primarily the passionate urban youth culture of New York City. Unlike the phony Breakin’, which felt like a dance movie with some minor hip-hop elements tossed in for marketing purposes, Beat Street is a completely entertaining movie that celebrates its music and culture without demeaning it. More importantly, the musical choices are inspired with catchy hip-hop songs such as Santa’s Rap and Beat Street Breakdown.

Movie ★★★★★

Beat Street Blu-ray screen shot 11

Olive Films delivers a serviceable, so-so transfer for Beat Street. Licensed from MGM by way of their Fox deal, this is an adequate but occasionally rough presentation. The main feature runs 106 minutes, encoded in a fine AVC video encode. Given the rough grain structure and patches of crushed black levels, it capably services the 1080P video framed at its intended 1.85 aspect ratio. The AVC video encode averages 26.69 Mbps on a BD-25.

Make no mistake, I am thrilled to see Beat Street released in Region A. The only other BD of it was a locked Region B disc released over in Germany by Capelight and MGM had no intention of doing it themselves in America. The film transfer shows the heavier grain and softened detail of a secondary film source. This is not a newly restored film scan of the camera negative.

The raw grain structure is thick and dense. Shadow delineation is crushed at times. The film print is steadily consistent in contrast with average color saturation. If anything could be improved, the elevated gamma levels are too high. The contrast is affected, making everything brighter than expected. Minor exposure problems crop up in a few sporadic scenes.

Definition is on the softer side but clarity remains fairly high throughout the movie. A new film scan would have obviously improved these things but Beat Street still receives a decent improvement in video quality on Blu-ray. Compared to the ancient DVD release (now quite dated) this Blu-ray represents the best current video option for this classic hip-hop movie.

Video ★★★☆☆

Beat Street is heard in a nice 2.0 DTS-HD MA soundtrack. Retaining the original stereo mix, this wasn’t mixed with audiophile purity in mind. It is a track that likes hard pans and instrument separation pushed to one channel or the other. The music itself sounds great, featuring a nice array of classic early hip-hop tunes. It’s a musical delight that works quite well with its verve and energy. The recording quality isn’t pristine, the live music has a slightly rough quality befitting the analog sound of early hip-hip music.

The German Blu-ray did include a 5.1 surround option for Beat Street, obviously a remixed effort without input of the filmmakers behind Beat Street.

Olive Films does not include subtitles.

Audio ★★★★☆

Beat Street Original Trailer (01:30 in HD)

A leaflet for other Olive Films’ releases is included. If it is any consolation, I am not aware of any special features that have ever been made for this movie. The DVD only included the above trailer.

Extras ★☆☆☆☆

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.


Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.

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