"The point is not the points, the point is the poetry," the teenage contestants in Chicago's Louder than a Bomb citywide poetry slam tell themselves. Even their admonishments to themselves sparkle with a delight in the possibilities of language.
That message rings true in the wonderful and inspiring documentary "Louder than a Bomb," which takes the "Spellbound" formula in following several top poets from different schools - from the privileged North Shore to the gritty South Side - as they compete in the 2008 edition of the event. The film played before a nearly full house at the Union Theater on Saturday afternoon.
As in "Spellbound," it's the personalities of the contestants rather than their scores that intrigue us. There's Adam, relentlessly enthusiastic and creative, his positive rhymes bursting forth in a torrent of words. There's Nate, a senior and mentor to other poets, whose poems burst with humor and insight and self-deprecation, along with some crazily inventive rhymes. (In one scene, we see his opponents marveling at his rhyme of "New Deal" - as in FDR - and "shoe deal" - as in Lebron James.
There's the aptly-named Nova, an aggressive but sensitive teenage girl who lacerates her absent father in her rhymes, seemingly try to will herself into a better life one verse at a time. And there's the Steinmenauts, a perennial powerhouse from a very rough neighborhood, putting what they've seen and experienced in the inner city into rhyme.
The term "poetry slam" is a misnomer, as this isn't some "8 Mile" game of one-upmanship, with the poets trying to demolish the others. (Although one senses the literary combat would be apocalyptic - in one poem, Nate jokes that he'll "Make your dreams deferred/My ego's Langston Huge"). It's much more about collaboration, and collections, and talented kids supporting each other.
And it's about those amazing poems, several of which sparked waves of applause in the Union Theater crowd. Those waves continued after the film, when several students from the UW First Wave program (including a few from Chicago who had performed in Louder than a Bomb) gave live performances for the audience.