The Canon of Cannon: The Breakin’ Trilogy

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THE CANON of Cannon is a feature where we take a wandering look at the backlog of world-renowned trash peddlers, Cannon Films, and the work they left behind. This time, we examine the enduring cult appeal of three pictures that redefined the dance-film genre.

The Breakin’ trilogy – for it is a trilogy – might well be the films that represent Cannon the most. The first part is goofy in its sincerity but also opportunistic, capitalising on a popular trend and raking in the dollars from its fleeting zeitgeist; the second is the exact same thing to greatly diminished returns; the third, barely related, released to minimal exposure and indifference. The notches are there, the vision plain to see; in its rise, fall and ignominious end, the story of Breakin’ is, inextricably, the story of Cannon itself.

But first, an overview. Breakdancing – or, as actual practitioners would call it, breaking and/or b-boying – was an invigorating style of street dance that exploded in popularity in the early 1980s. Steadily gaining more exposure through street practitioners and media coverage, the dance quickly began to enter the common parlance, as terms like popping, locking and, yes, electric boogaloo entered households.

Soon, b-boying – originally descended from African-American and Puerto Rican communities from funk and jazz dances – began to encompass the entire movement of street dance. It was a global phenomenon, spawning offshoots in locales as disparate as the United Kingdom, South Korea and Russia. (Since I’m obviously not a scholar on the subject, some interesting articles can be found here, here, and here.)

The sharp movements and abrupt, combative nature of the dance made it prime fodder for cinematic exploitation. Around the same time – specifically 1983 and 1984 – multiple studios were falling over themselves to strike the iron at its hottest point. Flashdance was the most successful film to incorporate b-boying elements; Wild Style is considered to be the first hip-hop film (a movement b-boying was heavily indebted to), while Beat Street and Breakin’ competed to come out first. In June 1984, at the behest and backing of Golan and Globus, Breakin’ won the race. (By four days.)

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Pitched at the craze’s zenith, Breakin’ out-grossed Sixteen Candles to reach Number 1 at the box office. It’s a bizarre, hilarious turn of events when a film about breakdancing out-performs a John Hughes flick, but this was the world that Cannon had latched itself onto. It helped itself by casting actual practitioners of b-boying like Shabba Doo and Boogaloo Shrimp in main roles, but moreso by featuring a spunky female lead in the Flashdance vein. It even premiered at Cannes, though this was mainly to contest the spotlight for Most Garish Cash-Grab with Beat Street.

The plot is what you’d expect from a dance-based picture and, if you’ve seen any entry in the Step Up franchise, you’ll know what to expect. Kelly (Lucinda Dickey from Ninja III) is a young jazz dancer trying to break into the business who, after an unfortunate encounter with her creepy, snooty dance instructor Franco (Ben Lokey), gets exposed to the wonders of breaking by Ozone (Shabba Doo) and Turbo (Boogaloo Shrimp). Together, they aspire to show the world their might, stick it to the stiffs and demonstrate the supreme freshness of their wicked vibes.

Or something like that. The narrative, what little there is, is merely the fluff that girdles the principal focus of the dancing. We’re here, director Joel Silberg realises, for just that – dancing – and the scenes are framed more as showcases for the performers’ talents than means to drive the plot forward. These are all very capable performers, and much of the action, at least initially, is filmed with clarity and longer-than-usual takes. The ‘broom scene’, with Turbo sweeping the floor outside his supermarket workplace, is shot largely at mid-distance with the occasional zoom and pan, fully capturing Shrimp’s intricate shuffles and broom interplay.

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The individual spotlight moments benefit from Silberg’s relaxed camera, but the three-man (later, six-man) routines suffer from frenetic cuts and swoops. Though the heightened pace matches the combative moves and more complicated set-pieces, it can be difficult to follow the rhythm of the scene. The final battle between the TKO trio and Electro Rock crew – the secondary antagonists to our heroes – is a dynamic one, the camera in free flow, but the cuts are too quick to keep the pace of the scene and the excitement is consequently lessened.

When the action is uncluttered though, the film is a gentle distraction. It’s apparently determined to take the edge off any incoming threat, framing proceedings with relaxing inevitability. Characters are clear-cut in both motivation and performance, and the sun is eternally shining upon the L.A. beaches. There’s an adorable lack of grit to this take on hip-hop lifestyles, where antagonistic rivals resolve their differences with the power of dance. Whereas Beat Street featured one of the heroes frying on an electrified third rail, Breakin’ has an almost noble family-friendliness to it.

This squeaky-clean image is ratified during a moment when, in lieu of what one would expect from a cheaply-produced Cannon film, Kelly isn’t sexually assaulted by Franco, whose chief act of villainy is to scoff dismissively at those pesky street dancers when they encroach on his traditionalist turf. Lokey’s performance drips with smouldering disdain, whereas Christopher McDonald, in the role of Kelly’s agent, James, is a delightful chap who, shockingly, doesn’t try to sabotage Kelly’s prospects at any point and actually has legitimate concerns for her career trajectory and general wellbeing.

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Boogaloo Shrimp and Shabba Doo aren’t trained actors, and it shows, but they’re primarily here to spout credible lingo and showcase the dance, so it’s not a qualm (though Turbo’s constant yakking and unstoppable popping soon begins to grate). At the distance of 32 years of misconception and parody, the dancing itself is still very exciting, even if it does get rather exhausting by the fifth, Chaka Khan-scored montage.

Breakin’ is, really, exactly what you’d expect it to be from the poster: A luminescent cash-grab that, despite its cynical production, still endears with its outdated fashions, Day-Glo aesthetic and simple will to have a good time. It’s perfectly harmless fun and, as a heavily sanitised gateway to b-boying in general, it’s educational. It would prove to be the most profitable film in Cannon’s history, grossing over $35 million on a budget just under $2 million. By all accounts, against the odds, Breakin’ was a huge success.

But then came Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.

Oh boy, Electric Boogaloo. Cannon, apparently not content to subtly hint at a potential sequel, had the hilarious audacity to announce Electric Boogaloo in the first film’s credits. Advertisements appeared only a month after the original’s premiere, with Golan and Globus apparently desperate to exploit the living love out of the now-bankable Breakin’ name. Released in the waning days of December 1984 – yes, the same year as the first one – Electric Boogaloo takes its name from a specific style in b-boying, pertaining to popping. Since Breakin’ 2, the term has become synonymous with laughable, unnecessary sequels.

In all its lurid glory.

In all its lurid glory.

Who better to direct this unwanted mess than Sam Firstenberg, helmer of American Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja and Ninja III? The most reliably basic journeyman in the Cannon arsenal, Firstenberg contributes exactly zero visual flair to this paint-by-numbers follow-up, drawing listless performances out of his already limited cast and making Breakin’ 2 one of the most depressingly forgettable films in the studio’s history, in spite of its now infamous subtitle.

It’s certainly one of Firstenberg’s most bloodless films, taking the feel-good vibes of Breakin’ and ramping it up to cloying over-enthusiasm, but it’s the kind of joie de vivre that looks dead behind the eyes. The returning cast all look like they’d rather be anywhere else and, with one exception, there’s a palpable lack of punch to the dance sequences, which are more reliant on gimmicky set-ups and larger ensembles – the finale makes the overblown choreography of the Step Up sequels look restrained by comparison.

The exception is a striking use of the rotating room from A Nightmare on Elm Street, with Turbo, quite literally, dancing on the ceiling. (A wonderful effect that’s somewhat diminished when you notice the clear movement beyond a crack in the set.) Save for a few, mostly needless cuts, the sequence is shot as one long take, and it’s one of the few moments where the film crackles with energy, in spite of the lumpen accompanying song, ‘I Don’t Wanna Come Down’.

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Everything else is a chore. It would be far more interesting to describe everything that Breakin’ 2 isn’t over what it actually has to offer. The premise is almost identical to the first, except this time the TKO Crew has to band up and save a local recreation centre from being demolished by greedy businessmen. Replacing Ben Lokey in the condescending stakes is Kelly’s overbearing father (John Christy Ewing), and… That’s about it. Christopher MacDonald was approached to reprise the role of James, but he shrewdly declined. The plot beats are the same, the characters are unchanged, and the whole thing looks noticeably cheaper despite costing more to make.

Shabba Doo regretted his decision to appear in Electric Boogaloo because it lacked the “grit and edge” of the original’s urban environs; I don’t know what version of Breakin’ he watched to conclude this, but his point has merit. Firstenberg, in command of a higher (yet still tightly-strung) budget than he’d ever seen, wasn’t complaining as he hurled a kaleidoscopic barrage of colour at the screen until the acrylic started to burn a hole through the screen. My god, the legwarmers. Good Christ, the leotards. It makes the carefree original look like New Jack City.

Ultimately though, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo won’t be remembered for its colour, or its premise, or even its dancing. It will be remembered as a title, and nothing more. It’s a shameless, cynical piece of marketing-heavy bollocks, designed to extort more dollars out of gullible cinemagoers on the back of a dying craze while the getting was good. It was the kind of brazen opportunism that Golan-Globus practically trademarked and, though still a success, performed far more poorly than its predecessor.

Not poorly enough to ixnay the sequel, apparently. Yes, astonishingly, there is – technically – a Breakin’ 3. It’s called Rappin’, but is alternatively known as Breakdance 3: Electric Boogalee.

ELECTRIC. BOOGALEE.

ELECTRIC. BOOGALEE.

Mario van Peebles stars as Rappin’ John Hood, a well-meaning ex-convict with a crippling affliction: he can’t contain the rap. Alongside his crew – comprised of a child, a fat man and two other bums – John wanders around his neighbourhood, uncontrollably rapping at nearby oxygen whenever the mood takes him. When the neighbourhood comes under threat from Southern arch-nemesis Duane (played with drawling relish by Charles Grant) and crooked property developers, John must unite the ‘hood in rhyme, break some beats and get the girl (Dixie, played by Tasia Valenza).

If Breakin’ 2 made Breakin’ look Lynchian in the feel-good stakes, Boogalee makes Boogaloo look like Stalker. The plot, again, is the same, except instead of resolving his conflicts with dance, John Hood resolves them by cornily grinning at someone for a while, waiting for them to make a move, and only then will the rap-scored beatdown begin. This culminates with a searing bout of verse in the marble halls of American justice! I’m not joking – John Hood overcomes the powers that be by rapping at them, and very poorly rapping at that.

Boogalee’s concept of rap is speaking to a tinny, repetitive rhythm in a monotone fashion, with rhymes so lifeless you’d think Vanilla Ice was spitting them. Here’s an example from the glorious finale: “Rappin’ Hood and the merry men / United the neighbourhood once again.” Here’s another: “You can tell from the beat coming from my box / Yeah, the beat’s so depth(?) it’ll rock your socks.” Christ on a bike. Not to mention the audio mixing is so bad it’s often difficult to make out the words anyway, but there’s also the fact that the performers regularly slur words together, rendering some verses incomprehensible. That final song features the entire neighbourhood cameoing a verse – it needs to seen.

Incidentally, here's Jean Claude Van Damme in the first Breakin'. Look at him go.

Incidentally, here’s Jean Claude Van Damme in the first Breakin’. Look at him go.

Rap was certainly a nascent medium when Rappin’ premiered in mid-1985, but it’s a fundamentally confrontational genre, born from urban grit and inner city blues. What makes the happy-go-lucky rhymes of Rappin’ even more hilarious is the considerable involvement of Ice-T. I wasn’t referencing New Jack City for nothing – Ice-T is, incredibly, the single connecting thread between all three Breakin’ films, appearing in uncredited roles as Any Generic Emcee, providing lyrics and songs for the soundtrack as well as confused commentary for a handful of dance battles. The Original Gangster would later describe his contribution to the Breakin’ trilogy as “wack”, but this is also the same man who appeared in Frankenpenis.

Mario van Peebles is a charismatic screen presence, and he’s honestly trying very hard to inject some life into this, but the returning Joel Silberg’s flat direction and obvious production downgrade mean he’s fighting an uphill battle. His weaksauce dialogue and do-gooder persona slowly endear him to the audience, but his insistence on widely smiling at everything borders on creepy. Charles Grant is the only actor on van Peeble’s level. When the two share stares, the film suddenly becomes engaging, but it’s primarily focused on John Hood prancing about town in midriff-exposing shirts and striking up a comatose romance with Dixie.

One of his friends is a fat man called Fats (Melvin Plowden), who eats burgers, because he’s fat. John and the crew rap a song called ‘Snack Attack’ at him. Because he’s fat.

But, in all seriousness, Electric Boogalee is a deliciously cheesy romp that revels in its shoddy sets, terrible lines and huggable charm. Suffice to say it was already dated at the time of its release; riding out the final throes of the b-boying phase, it only mildly mangled the hip-hop lifestyle, diluting its inherent anger and converting it to broad, crowd-pleasing platitudes.

And there's Ice-T. Of course he's there.

And there’s Ice-T. Of course he’s there.

It’s empty, exploitative fluff, like its predecessors, but much like those two films it provided a platform for performers who might not have otherwise been given a chance. The Breakin’ films are hardly accurate portraits of the burgeoning sub-culture; in fact, they’re gleefully insensitive, relying upon the freshness of the movement to sell the product over the inherent, artistic and cultural value of either b-boying or rapping.

And yet, as crass as the capitalisation and milking undoubtedly is, these films still retain a weird, campy charisma that defy the fiscal motives that made them happen. They were successful facsimiles of a global phenomenon that, in truth, might not have received the kind of exposure it did without films like Breakin’. For all their failings, Golan and Globus were among a rare breed of producers that were willing to take that kind of risk.

Breakin’ would prove to be the final film released under the Cannon-MGM distribution partnership deal. Consequently, it is considered to be the final smash hit film that Cannon ever released; financially, it was all downhill from here. The reason for the dissolution of this partnership was the controversial X-rated content of a certain film headlined by Bo Derek. That film was Bolero. Oh dear.

Next time: the softcore sleaze of Bolero.

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