Monday, 24 October 2016

I remember Notts: "NG83: When We Were B-Boys"

If Central Television had been entrusted with an episode of The Hip Hop Years - doubtless hosted by Grandmaster Tony Francis - it might have turned out something like NG83: When We Were B-Boys. The NG of the title is the Nottingham postcode; '83 the year in which the breakdancing craze first took hold among rival crews on the Midlands city's streets, as it did elsewhere. If the interviewees in this engaging indie documentary - a joint effort by Claude Knight, Luke Scott and Sam Derby-Cooper - are to be believed, the scene at Rock City's weekly Saturday Afternoon Jam was not a million miles away from the more strenuous and frenetic activity dramatised in West Side Story.

The filmmakers catch up with this scene's main players, now in their forties and beyond, several still clinging to their original boomboxes. There's Shane Meadows soundalike Karl, presently a postman who has to get up at a time he once used to come in at; there's Barry, a.k.a. Audiotron, a treasure trove of information located bodypopping in a bedroom overloaded with collectibles, from era-specific mixtapes to the casings of household burglar alarms; and there's Tommy, whom we learn has fathered 14 kids, and who doesn't so much rock or drop the mic as talk it into a state of exhaustion. Representing the erstwhile homegirls is Annie, a.k.a. "Lady McD", whose story is underpinned not by the nerdy facts the guys proffer, rather some altogether painful emotions.

In the main, though, the tone is fond, relaxed: Knight, Scott and Derby-Cooper believe, not unmistakenly, that you can learn as much about someone from how they make cups of tea for the camera crew - or from the very fact they make cups of tea for the camera crew - as from any subsequent sitdown and chinwag. These are characters you'd happily spend a couple of hours down the pub listening to - which may be one reason the film keeps orbiting certain Notts hostelries - and they keep producing amusing, diverting anecdotes between them: a fraught excursion to give a breakdancing demonstration in Beirut, a domestic dispute over a patch of lino (essential streetdancing kit) belonging to an ebullient soul known to everyone as "Dancing Danny".

A little more structure or focus on the competitive nature of British breakdancing arguably wouldn't have gone amiss, but the filmmakers have unearthed a wealth of VHS footage to plug some of the gaps. These now grainy, wobbly images not only commemorate specific locks and pops - a competition-winning one-handed headspin inspires awestruck reminiscence - but a particular moment in UK street culture, both faraway and so close: a point where was a British Home Stores (bearing its full name) in every shopping precinct, where our youth traded in packs of Bensons and Classic bars rather than bitcoins and snark, and - just perhaps - where there existed a community spirit that has subsequently come close to extinction.

The cautionary second half considers how these once highly flexible individuals have come to negotiate the years since, and while the Karls of this scene have committed to family and full-time employment (with a little DJing on the side), others have clearly struggled to fill their Saturday afternoons: petty crime, heavy drinking and chronic loneliness begin to enter the frame. B-Boyism suddenly starts to resemble as much a paradise lost as those Northern Soul nights held just up the road at the Wigan Casino, for what ultimately reunites the film's subjects is a tragedy - albeit one reframed as a celebration upon the selection of the right, evocative tune. In the end, we're left to conclude this was just a passing scene - which is why West Side Story became a classic, and Breakin' II: Electric Boogaloo never did - but it's been documented with affection and sensitivity here: the same affection and sensitivity a Barry or Tommy would surely reserve for a white label 12", or the right pair of trainers.

NG83: When We Were the B-Boys opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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