''Rize" desperately needs to be seen by those convinced they know what goes on in inner-city neighborhoods based only on the evening news and tabloid headlines. If that describes many of the readers of this newspaper, so be it, but trust me -- you'll come out of this movie with your eyes pinned open. The photographer, video director, and freelance provocateur David LaChapelle has made a documentary of hope sprouting where there should be none -- an act of spontaneous generation in a field of concrete. It's a feel-good film that actually makes you feel good.
It's also a dance movie, and one of the most helplessly invigorating examples I've seen. ''Rize" follows the rise of ''clowning" and the associated ''krumping" fads in South Central Los Angeles in the 1990s, freestyle dance crazes that aren't so much artistic movements but pacifist alternate gangs. For young men and women in ''Hollywatts" and Inglewood, it's not like there's much choice. Says one of the dancers, ''You're either in a gang or a clown group. It's like being a conscientious objector."
''Clowning" was more or less invented by Tommy the Clown, a.k.a. Thomas Johnson, in 1992, when he put down his gang colors and picked up face paint and a rainbow Afro-wig to entertain at South Central birthday parties. His loosey-goosey dance moves attracted others, who spun off into their own groups -- there are now as many as 50 in all -- dedicated to ''making smiles where there are none."
At some point, the rawer style called ''krumping" took hold, based on what its partisans call the ''stripper dance." It looks like electrocution, basically. Dancers make herky-jerky movements with arms, legs, hips, working up to a full-bodied possession that jackhammers their limbs so furiously the director felt compelled to start the movie with a proviso stating that the film hasn't been sped up.
The Krumpers -- kids with street names like Tight Eyez, Dragon, and Miss Prissy -- wear face paint that resembles battle tattoos, gather around each other in tight circles, and throw themselves at each other with startling aggression. It only looks like fighting. ''Fighting is the last thing on our minds when we're krumping," Dragon says. ''It's not dangerous," Miss Prissy says. ''It's life."
It's also a ritual that lets off steam in a lethal closed environment. We see the funeral for a 15-year-old girl clowner cut down by a stray bullet on her way to school; the friendly neighborhood casket dealer jokingly warns one of the dancers, ''Better clown right, or you'll end up here with me." Krumping and clowning come to seem like death-throe frenzies that, miraculously, plant a fresh pride in self. Dragon has become a levelheaded father-figure to his younger siblings, a fact at which his mother, an ex-gangbanger whose parents were both addicts, can only marvel.
LaChapelle, notorious for his kitschy faux-S&M fashion shoots and Christina Aguilera videos, shoots ''Rize" with super-hot colors, a maximum of sweat, and the naive, complicated sympathy of a white interloper. The sequence in which he intercuts between the krumping kids and footage of African native dancers -- wearing face paint and throwing themselves at each other with abandon -- is culturally loaded for bear and meant to be so, but the similarities are there and worth making, and they underscore what a deep wellspring this fury rises from. The dancers know it, too. ''We didn't have to go to school for this," says one. ''It was already implanted in us from birth."
Still, there's a delicate balance here between expression and belligerence, and the one who almost upsets the apple cart is none other than Tommy the Clown himself. Looking to take it commercial, he arranges a ''BattleZone" competition at a local arena, during which the Clowns and the Krumpers face off for trophies based on audience acclaim. One side wins, the other side stews, and for a brief, uneasy span, they're gangs about to let loose at each other. The moment passes, and when Tommy goes home to find his house looted, the movie presents it as something close to karma.
More often, LaChapelle just grooves on the bodies and the movements, with an aesthetician's eye that borders on cultural imperialism but is saved, time and again, by joy. He gives us these kids as people rather than found objects, and he ends the film with a slow-motion montage of sunlit, perspiring dancers jetting through the air to the strains of the old Edwin Hawkins Singers hit ''Oh, Happy Day." You may be inclined to agree.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.