Chicago Tribune –
3 stars (out of four)
Tommy Johnson gets stares wherever he walks in his home neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles.
That's because his home turf is not exactly used to a modern-day version of Bozo the Clown. His face caked with makeup, his wig a sprawling rainbow of cotton candy colors, Johnson, a.k.a. Tommy the Hip-Hop Clown, is a former drug dealer and man on a mission. He's determined to bring hope, positive values and wholesome recreation to his ghetto neighborhood, and one of the tools is a hyperkinetic, gravity-defying alley dance called clowning.
A descendent of 1980s break dancing, clowning, the subject of the documentary movie "Rize," is a contemporary street art all its own, characterized by speedy, flowing limbs and feverish shakes that amount to a self-induced bout of Saint Vitus' dance. Here and there are echoes of the old break dance spins and twirls, but clowning boasts its own 21st-Century style, along with an up-to-date hipness and confounding athletic tricks. For Johnson, it is more than an aesthetic pastime: In an area besieged by drive-by shootings, drug deals and unemployment, clowning is his way of offering an optimistic alternative for youngsters, a means of self-expression and a chance to channel positive energy.
A cautionary note prior to the movie insists that nothing on view is the result of artificial camera speeds. That's indeed hard to believe at times, the higgledy-piggledy gyrations and shakes of the performers are so awesome and startling. Graced with elements of tribal African stylistics (the movie includes African footage to make the point), clowning in part turns on an accelerating energy that accumulates with geometric progression, its performers working themselves into seeming frenzy while never losing control, often finishing with a snappy gesture of defiance. Indeed, clowning is a way to subvert turf animosity and rechannel it into rivalry and team dance battles: Make art, not war.
Though otherwise expressionistic, haphazardly interspersing commentary with extended performances by these amazing youngsters, "Rize" does move towards one elaborate team face-off. The two rival groups are Johnson's Clown gang and competitors calling themselves the Krumps, and it culminates in a raucous, well-attended contest in a large modern arena. But reality sadly intrudes, rendering "Rize" more than a straightforward study of a street art. Johnson, who barely makes ends meet, suffers a house burglary and eventually loses his home; a teen girl connected to the dancing is killed in a freak shooting.
Thus "Rize" is a compelling, bittersweet hybrid of a movie, one celebrating an enormous and hitherto unsung underground talent, while suggesting that art goes only so far in solving the enormous challenges of the underprivileged life.