What poetry there is in Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel's slipshod documentary (shot in 2008) comes almost entirely from its subjects. All of them are Chicago high-schoolers, from different economic and social backgrounds, who are competing in the eponymous annual slam event, and the doc is at its best when it's simply allowing us to bask in the diverse flow of words. It hardly matters if the poems' themes are tragic (the four-person Steinmenauts devastate with the gang-violence ballad "Counting Graves") or idealistic (the sprightly Adam Gottlieb inspires with his audience-involving "Poet, Breathe Now!"). The sheer breadth of talent is so astonishing, and the rhymes so clearly from the heart, that our spirits are inevitably lifted.
Would that Jacobs and Siskel gave these young virtuosos a more focused showcase. Like most competition docs, the film moves chronologically from fraught training period to the main event, with talking heads interspersed throughout. Yet the stories of the various teams' preparations are sloppily structured (Gottlieb's crew is barely seen; a squad-decimating crisis among the Steinmenauts is portentously addressed, then obliquely abandoned). And during the competition, when the directors attempt to upend the no-holds-barred expectations of the genre, it feels like a disingenuous sop to the event's wishful-thinking tag line: "The point is not the point. The point is the poetry." The kids pick up the filmmakers' lyrical slack more often than not, but this ode to the power of verse could really use a redraft.
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