Lil Buck: Real Swan is a great documentary made by French filmmaker Louis Wallecan. So technically one could say that this is a French film. The credits are even in French. However, the film is unmistakably Southern in tone and in place. Most of the film takes place in one of the toughest cities in the South, Memphis, Tennessee. Known to a lot of people as the birthplace of Elvis Aaron Presley, but more importantly in later years, the birthplace of trap music.
Three Six Mafia is from Memphis, and their influence on the rap world has spread into something so far beyond its original form, it’s insane. For example “Old Town Road” for better or for (much much much) worse, wouldn’t exist without the forefathers of trap music, Juicy J, DJ Paul, and all four thousand other members of Three Six. It is in this background where an underground dance culture formed in Memphis. Springing from breakdancing and roller skating, the gangsta walk and jookin are two distinct styles of dance that came to fruition in Memphis skating rinks and parking lots.
“We follow Buck’s journey from jookin in the Crystal Palace and various parking lots throughout Memphis…”
We see one of the most popular spots for jookin, The Crystal Palace skating rink. Mr. Burnett, who had worked there for 30 years, shows us this mecca for jook dancing. On the end of most nights, everyone could take their skates off and dance. We meet many of these dancers over the course of this documentary, including Daniel, Terrik, Kesean, Caviar, Jai Armmer, and more. The style of dance is incredibly impressive. You can see it’s birth in skating, as there is a lot of focus on the footwork which is similar to the type of tricks you can do while on rollerskates.
Lil Buck, the titular dancer, grew up in this scene. He’s very light on his feet and can even invert his ankles. We follow Buck’s journey from jookin in the Crystal Palace and various parking lots throughout Memphis to when he started taking ballet classes at Memphis New Ballet, ran in part by Joe Mulhearn. They set up a program where students could take classes regardless of their ability to pay. Lil Buck thrived in this space and became an even better dancer.
At a certain point, Lil Buck decided to incorporate jookin in his ballet practice and to perform these moves to classical music rather than trap. None other than Yo Yo Ma saw a YouTube video of Buck’s performance to “The Swan” and asked him to accompany him while he played the same song. From this point, Buck ascended the ladder to worldwide stardom.
“…shows us that hard work and talent can take a person out of less than optimal circumstances.”
Lil Buck: Real Swan is a great feel-good rags-to-riches story that shows us that hard work and talent can take a person out of less than optimal circumstances. It also introduces you to a place and a culture you probably don’t know much about if you aren’t from the South or into rap music. I learned a lot more about the underground dance culture than I had known before. I really appreciate that Louis Wallecan gave the dancers that aren’t as well known as Buck an opportunity to essentially perform for an international audience without having to leave Memphis.
I enjoyed Lil Buck: Real Swan so much simply because I am always happy when poor people from the South make it big. It’s really hard for people living in places like Memphis. The poverty level is no joke, and the racial and socioeconomic divide is a serious issue. Wallecan manages to discuss this without really saying anything, but we know it’s there in the background the whole time. I highly recommend seeing this documentary so you can be introduced to new aspects of the American diaspora that you probably don’t know about. I think it’s very important that we as citizens know what’s going on in all parts of our country, not just New York and LA. Of course, it takes a French director to show us, which should be a wake-up call. Additionally, aside from any political statements this film might subtly make, the dancing is the coolest part. Lil Buck is a star, and I wish him all the best, as well as the rest of the dancers from Memphis who are featured in this film. Check it out when it comes to theaters!
Lil Buck: Real Swan (2019) Written and Directed by Louis Wallecan. Starring Lil Buck, Spike Jonze, Jai Armmer, Daniel, Sabrina Moore, Lee Anthony, Yo Yo Ma, Kesean, Benjamin Millepied. Lil Buck: Real Swan screened at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.
7 out of 10 stars