“We dance in the streets because we don’t have anywhere to go now.” There is much that sticks and stutters and loops in the mind after watching “Dark City Beneath the Beat,” a bright, ebullient and simultaneously seething musical documentary dedicated to the Baltimore club scene, but that’s the line that lingers longest. An apparent expression of joy, chased by an admission of crushing, unequal reality, it’s said matter-of-factly by a young black choreographer trying to keep art alive in the face of diminished creative space. It distils the push-pull impulses of TT The Artist’s unique film, which mixes and remixes fluorescently staged performance and candid sidewalk-level vérité to offer an abstract history of a city’s rich musical subculture, a busy snapshot of the black community in which it flourishes, and a consciousness-raising statement of resistance against political and economic oppressors. All that in 65 minutes, and the beat never lets up once.
“Dark City Beneath the Beat” ought to have entered the festival circuit with a bang. It was set to premiere at South By Southwest in March, before the coronavirus pandemic shuttered the event, and it’s hard to envision any scenario in which this short, sharp blast of a doc wouldn’t have set Austin crowds alight with its combination of audiovisual dynamism and amplified social protest. Now streaming as part of the Hot Docs festival’s digital program, it plays persuasively on any size screen, but will hopefully see future theatrical bookings where its restless soundscape and scorched, radiant visuals can be best experienced. “Insecure” creator Issa Rae’s involvement as a producer is an additional selling point, though director-editor-performer TT The Artist — a Baltimore rapper and club queen who immediately proves a fluent, adventurous filmmaker — is the woman whose identity seeps from her debut’s every pore.
With no conventional narration and a bare minimum of talking heads, the film doesn’t pedantically walk unfamiliar viewers through the origins and particulars of Baltimore club music: a blend of hip-hop and house that, since its inception in the 1990s, has cultivated multiple interdependent communities of rappers, DJs, dancers and club promoters. Rather, it trusts us to pick things up on the fly, evoking the scene from the inside out — beginning with a throbbing, unflagging breakbeat score, expertly curated by the director and music supervisor Mighty Mike, which gets viewers quite literally in the groove as the film’s world unfolds.
Just as a DJ controls the vibe of a club with their set, so TT The Artist uses the changeable registers and BPM of the music to mark the doc’s shifts in focus from celebratory street portraiture to blunt Black Lives Matter activism to heartfelt mourning for departed artists. “There are a thousand ways to tell this story,” an introductory title card declares, and the film sets out to try as many as possible. Though its brisk running time will help the film slot easily into further festival programs and ancillary slots, “Dark City Beneath the Beat” could easily run another half-hour without pausing for breath.
And so we segue swiftly and seamlessly between moods and modes, with cinematographer Kirby Griffin’s humid, fluid imagery excelling across the aesthetic spectrum. Vox-pop interviews with black Baltimore residents — as they explain their love-hate relationship with their troubled hometown — bleed into music-video interludes, exquisitely art-directed in blazing primary hues, including one where jazz-rap artist Olu Butterfly offers an ode to creators and creating (“Woe to those/who try to stop these/killer African bees/from making honey”). Baltimore club insiders such as Mighty Mark and Uneek, founder of talent development program BMore Than Dance, reflect on the scene’s legacy and offer us a whirlwind tour of such influential hotspots as the Paradox nightclub. Rough-and-ready footage from intensive local dance-off contests sits happily alongside gleamingly polished, choreographed cinematic setpieces addressing gun violence and race hate: In the most beautiful and startling of these, two dancers enact a heated face-off between a white cop and a targeted black civilian with a blend of ballet, breakdancing and mime.
Tightly and intuitively edited by the director, these transitions stress the point that Baltimore club is a multitude of things to a large, lively population: Spanning multiple media and disciplines, it’s both a stylistic umbrella for many idiosyncratic artists and an open-to-all platform for community empowerment, inviting further minority groups — notably an outspoken and expressive LGBTQ faction — to the ball. Above all, it’s a soundtrack for Baltimore itself, with a fevered rhythm determined by the city’s socioeconomic hardships and cultural wealth. “Why do we give all our time to streets that don’t love us back?” one Baltimore resident asks. Dancing with a raised fist throughout, this superb documentary makes a case for the effort.