With the recent “wake-up call” documentaries showing us all that is wrong with America’s schools, it is refreshing to see one showing us what is indeed right – even if it is just an itsy-bitsy piece of the puzzle in what is the grand scheme of our educational system. Louder Than A Bomb, produced and directed by Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel (yes, Gene’s nephew), gets its title from the youth poetry slam competition held in Chicago since its inception in 2001. With over 60 local schools competing, it is the world’s largest of its kind. In this inspiring and affecting film, Jacobs and Siskel focus on four schools and a handful of student slam-poets as they make their way to February’s heated competition.
In selecting the schools and students they would follow, Jacobs and Siskel chose very well, with much of the focus spent on the team from South Side’s Steinmetz High School, who won last year’s contest in their very first year of competition. Now trying to repeat, coach James Sloan must rally his troops and apply much patience and counsel to the few team members who have been acting out of line. The scene where he and his co-instructor confront three unruly students, threatening to kick them off the team illustrates just how much this poetry slam competition – and being a part of a team – means to them. When one of the kids starts crying, we are reminded of the hard fact that, no matter how tough and mature they appear to be, they are still children.
Like Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom before it, Louder Than A Bomb reminds us that children, no matter what their socio-economic background may be, when given the opportunity, are capable of achieving great things. The student-poets and their talents really get to shine here, especially when on stage in front of a supportive audience and a mic. Seventeen year-old Nova from Oak Park/River Forest High School writes with passion about her special-needs younger brother and the father she hasn’t spoken to since she was twelve. Her composition is raw; her delivery poised and moving. Nate from Whitney Young Magnet High School is the veteran of the competition, on the cusp of graduating and moving on to bigger things. Nate is a mentor and coach to his younger peers and his advanced writing skills and flair with the pen are clearly on display. He may come off as a bit too confident and cocky, but that’s a miniscule nitpick judging from where he came from (his parents were both drug addicts when he was young) and more importantly, where he may be headed for. The standout here is the immensely likable Adam Gottlieb from Northside College Prep. His poem celebrating all that is poetry is an exceptional blend of writing and performance that brings the house down and makes us aware of a major talent on the rise. Later, Adam performs a piece commemorating his Jewish heritage – a completely different piece, with a different style and register that shows off his impressive discipline and range. Near the end of the film, the group poetry piece performed by four students of Steinmartz is also a stand-out in a film full of passionate, honest, and stirring performances.
One of the mantras of the competition is “The point is not the points…The point is the poetry.” This, a reference to the judges who grade each performance on a scale of 1-10 for scoring purposes is brought to fruition when we see a student from Steinmartz at the end of the film explain what the competition and the art of poetry means to him. It makes for a moving scene and provides us with a tremendous sense of hope. Kevin Coval, co-founder of the Louder Than A Bomb competition, freely admits that “grading” or scoring each piece is not the ideal method for judging a teenager’s efforts and should not even be done, but for the sake of having winners and losers, is inevitable.
Jacobs and Siskel could have explored the tough backgrounds that many of these students seem to come from. Instead, they (perhaps wisely) choose to focus on the competition, and the work itself. Certain aspects are mentioned here and there, but not in a way that detracts from the film’s pacing and scope. In a society that can’t get enough of the reality shows, here we are given a contest with incredible meaning and purpose – and more entertaining and impressive than anything you will see on prime time. Youth poetry slams would make for a wonderful new reality show, but I am afraid that most of the television-viewing public would be dismissive of the art form of the written word. Louder Than A Bomb is an enriching reminder of what students can accomplish with a little hard work and some leadership – one hopes that other states and districts will take a page from the people behind this poetry contest and follow suit.