Originally screened at the very online 2020 version of South by Southwest, Dark City: Beneath the Beat now hits Netflix with is full complement of Baltimore club music bounce, crazy leg kinetics, and defiant creative spirit.
DARK CITY: BENEATH THE BEAT: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: Baltimore, a city with a national profile focused on its difficult history of crime, drug violence and poverty, is instead presented here as a place with a beating heart all its own, one full of creativity, spirited dance, and the unique kind of community that coming together under the flag of music can foster. Dark City: Beneath the Beat director and editor TT The Artist, a rapper and visual artist who found her creative and professional voice in the city, constructs her film from the dance circle outward, past the doors of the clubs and house parties where the Baltimore Club sound was born, and into the streets, where for as much as violence, hustle, and heartbreak are part of everyday life, there is just as much belief that dance and the sense of belonging bred in the spaces where it occurs can be a force to alter Baltimore’s troubled narrative.
TT The Artist doesn’t discount the price Baltimore has paid in violence and loss. She portrays the relevance of Freddie Gray’s death as a tragedy that stings those still living in the places he did, and also dwells on the music community’s own losses, influential figures like DJ K-Swift and the dancer Susie “Fatgirl” Mack. But even in that vacuum of what’s left behind, Dark City finds an opportunity to put dancing front and center. Dance sequences staged on the Baltimore harborfront, or amongst the scarred concrete of a project’s basketball court — even a ballerina dancing across gravestones — all of them speak to reclaiming what’s been lost, and giving a voice to pain through movement. Free of straight narration and avoiding direct talking head cutaways, TT The Artist instead tells the Dark City story through the language of dance and through listening to voices that have come up in both the streets and the club.
Ultimately, Dark City: Beneath the Beat is a love letter, both to the people of Baltimore (particularly its young people), but also to the city itself, and its boundless potential in creative human capital. Baltimore is a place its citizens will be the first to admit has more than its share of adversity. But in the next moment, they’ll also beam with civic pride. As one woman on the street interviewee puts it, “I’ll rep my city ‘til the day I die.”
What Movies Will It Remind You Of? Netflix is also featuring Jewel’s Catch One (hurry up, though — it leaves the streamer April 30), a doc about the legendary Los Angeles club that became a creative hub and safe harbor for black LGBTQ communities. There are echoes of techno in the 808’s and call outs of Baltimore club music, and the music Detroit built bleeds with its own street-level, very personal history, one that Resident Advisor told well in its Real Scenes vignette on the Motor City and techno’s braintrust. (Real Scenes: Detroit streams free at the RA site.) And for a more dramatic take on music and dancing as an underground force, check out the 2018 French film Break.
Performance Worth Watching: “Cherry Hill! Side kick, SpongeBob, Sexy Walk. Heel toe, footwork, Crazy leg, Rock off…” Repeat! The young people putting their all into Baltimore club’s representative dance moves and styles, elevating the baseline principles with their own spin on the classics, and generally doing it all with a ton of grin and swagger, are the stars of most every sequence in Dark City.
Memorable Dialogue: “A lot of talent is in Baltimore that doesn’t get seen,” TT The Artist tells an interviewer in Dark City. “So I just wanted to offer a window to the outside world. To show you what artists in Baltimore look like. To show you what music from Baltimore sounds like, and show you what culture from Baltimore feels like.” It’s a sound summary of her film’s vibrant modus operandi.
Sex and Skin: Nothing but the camera’s joyous caress of bodies as they bust furious dance moves with a pride of personhood and movement that burns through the screen.
Our Take: The Baltimore club sound is infectious, to say the least. With its backbone of an 8/4 beat punctuated with kicks, snares, and high hats, a track suddenly gets its hooks in you with a repeated vocal sample, hiccuping across the surface of the rhythm until it lassos around your middle and sends energy pouring down each limb. This effect is illustrated time and again in Dark City. Soloists move in a frenzy that is at once relentless and furiously on time, following the cues in the music to drop into a specific move, and connecting them together in feats of form and physicality. Footage from the King of Baltimore and its counterpart, The Queen of Baltimore, annual competitions to settle on who’s the best dancer the city has to offer, is particularly gripping in the flurry of creativity on display, but also in how much of a community affair it really is, spectators and friends crowding in on the action, ready to clap, always encouraging. It’s a heartening thing to see, and Dark City‘s searching camera work includes its viewer in these buoyant moments.
Clocking it at just over an hour, Dark City leaves much of the heavy lifting that would parse the cycles of violence and poverty that have plagued Baltimore for decades for a different day, another doc. Instead, it drills down to the personal level, often all the way down to a person’s feet, legs, arms, eyes — anything that’s employed in what makes her move and shake. Full of vibrancy and bright sunlight, what Dark City really finds beneath its beat is unadulterated hope.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Filmed pre-pandemic, Dark City: Beneath the Beat is a paean to the power of community, and puts its viewer in a position to get lost in a flurry of peak energy dance moves.
Johnny Loftus is an independent writer and editor living at large in Chicagoland. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media, and Nicki Swift. Follow him on Twitter: @glennganges