Louder than a Bomb | Movie review
Another round of Spellbound that, with a broader view, might have landed in Hoop Dreams territory, Louder than a Bomb demonstrates the limits of making a competition documentary even as it transcends the format. Louder than a Bomb is the name of a Chicago poetry-slam event in which high-schoolers vie for points both as teams and individuals. Because students write and collaborate on their poetry, and because poetry is inherently more personal than spelling, the final show isn’t merely an occasion for suspense. It’s an opportunity for self-revelation.
Jacobs and Siskel (nephew of Gene) focus on four schools, representing the suburbs as well as the North, South and West Sides. The performances open windows onto very different anxieties: Oak Park and River Forest High School’s Nova Venerable tries to understand what her special-needs brother will retain of the time she’s spent raising him; Adam Gottlieb, from Northside College Prep, speaks of the northward movement of Jewish neighborhoods in Chicago; the reigning champions from Steinmetz High School deliver a powerful cry against gang violence.
While the movie becomes more rousing as it proceeds into the competition, its view becomes narrower. (Platitudinous asides from fest founder Kevin Coval seem more suited for a promo video.) The heart of the film is offstage, as the subjects juggle jobs and school while teachers struggle to maintain discipline and help them mold their writing into star-making material. It’s both a compliment and a drawback that Louder than a Bomb makes you want to spend a year with all of them.