One of the many things a documentary film can do is to take you inside a subculture you had no idea existed, show you what’s best and most interesting about that culture (call it an edited version of reality, with the boring bits cut out), then deposit you back in your own world 90 minutes or so later. It doesn’t require a big commitment in terms of either time or energy to take one of these vicarious trips, and if you find you want to learn more about this new world, you are free to do so. If not, you can get on with your own life, enriched by having learned something about a subculture previously unknown to you.
Jamal Sims’ When the Beat Drops is exactly that kind of film—it takes you inside the world of bucking, an exuberant, high-energy dance form modeled on a style developed by the Jackson State University dance team, and practiced primarily (at least according to this film) by gay men of color. The name comes from the similarity of some of its movements to that of a bucking horse, although there’s a lot more going on than that, and it’s sometimes called J-Setting in honor of its origins. But words don’t do the style justice—you have to see it, and When the Beat Drops gives you ample opportunity to do so.
Sims is concerned to establish the context in which bucking developed, and in which it is practiced today, so he mixes interviews with different performers in among the many clips of dance rehearsals, performances, and competitions. He spends the most time with Anthony, who runs the competition dance team Phi Phi, occasionally dances himself despite not having fully recovered from a gunshot wound in the leg, and puts on the “Live the Dream Competition” every year on MLK weekend. We also get to meet Napoleon, a.k.a. Lynell Goodwin, a schoolteacher and band director who also runs a nonprofit, and is aware that he may be endangering his job by his performances in bucking competitions.
When the Beat Drops is a joy to watch, and remarkably polished considering it’s the feature debut for Sims, who is well-known as a dancer and choreographer. On the other hand, given the breadth of his professional experience in dance, the subject is a natural for him, and he certainly knows how to film dance effectively. In case Sims’ name is not familiar to you, here are few of his accomplishments: he’s danced on a Michael Jackson music video, choreographed for Madonna, *NSYNC, and Jennifer Lopez, among others, appeared as a choreographer and judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race, and choreographed for the movies Footloose and Hannah Montana: The Movie.
When the Beat Drops premiered on Logo TV in 2018, and is now available on DVD from Kino Lorber. You might say it does for bucking what Paris is Burning did for voguing: introduced a fierce underground dance subculture to a much wider audience, while paying tribute to the practitioners and capturing some of their work on film so it’s preserved for posterity. | Sarah Boslaugh
When the Beat Drops is distributed on DVD by Kino Lorber. Extras on the disc include a commentary track by Sims and producer Jordan Finnegan, deleted scenes, and the film’s trailer.