WHEN THE BEAT DROPS, That’s When Life Starts

Jamal Sims’ dance doc is vibrant and informative

Part history lesson and part celebration, Jamal Sims’ When the Beat Drops is a loving look at a subset of dance culture and the people behind it. The dance at the heart of the story is bucking, a dance that started with the J-Settes, the dance team at Jackson State University. The dance itself is a full body movement that looks like a wave passing through a person’s body. In the film, the images of horses bucking and kicking play while we get a description of the dance. The dance is powerful, a blast of energy so potent that it’ll make you want to hop out of your seat and get yourself moving. In the undulations of the dancers is a pure distillation of expression. Like with most dances, it’s about passion. Passion for the dance, passion for yourself, passion for other dances, and passion for life.

For the men at the center of When the Beat Drops, bucking is more than a hobby. As gay black men, bucking was a gateway to a community where people could be themselves, free of the narrow minded expectations of society. When performing, the men dress in more feminine attire. Between the stigma of conservative society and bigotry and homophobia, bucking was something these men could do and be free, temporarily, from the burdens of day to day life.

The film revolves around the men of the Atlanta based dance crew Phi Phi. The crew was started by Anthony Davis, a large man with a larger heart. He is a force of positivity, and even though he can’t quite move like the other dancers, he’s a vital part of the community. From Club Traxx to Labor Day Pride celebrations in the community to dance battles across the country, Anthony built a legacy. Health problems, including gunshot injuries from a robbery attempt, may have slowed Anthony’s physical abilities, so the few shows Sims gets of Anthony dancing feel particularly exuberant and powerful.

Sims, a renowned choreographer in his own right, captures the kinetic power of bucking and showing the dancers at their best. But it’s Sims’ skill for telling personal stories that makes When the Beat Drop a success. The members of Phi Phi are captivating, from choreographer Michael Jackson to Napoleon, a teacher and advocate for anti-bullying, these men are vibrant and Sims lets their personalities show on and off the dance floor.

The film moves quickly, but strikes a compelling balance between the dancing and behind the scenes footage. On his commentary track Sims mentions numerous instances where the film crew had limited access to certain places and people, which hints at a potentially deeper film that could’ve been. But Sims does capture is insightful and thrilling enough to sustain the film in its finished form. Sims’ commentary is informative and infectious. There is plenty of inside baseball talk about the production itself. Filming went on for five years, and Sims has a sharp memory for when and how specific moments were captured. The added context enhances the film.

After a successful festival run, the film gets a proper home video release from Kino Lorber. The disc itself is sparse, with the film only getting a DVD release with the special features limited to Sims’ commentary and another track from one of the film’s producers, Jordan Finnegan. For anyone interested in dance or LGBTQ stories, When the Beats Drops is a worthwhile watch.

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