Lil' Buck: Real Swan


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Lil' Buck: Real Swan
"There's a magical quality about this film that coalesces in Wallecan's perspectives on Memphis landscapes and the dance performances themselves." | Photo: Mathieu De Montgrand

Dance is like football: a truly democratic source of joy. It doesn't matter who you are or how much money you have. With the exception of a few places where legal restrictions enforce caution, you can do it in your living room, in an empty field or in a parking lot. In impoverished urban Memphis parking lots are the biggest stages that the young stars of Louis Wallecan's documentary can imagine, and they make eager use of them.

Dance is a language often heavily imbued with cultural meaning. This takes a while to learn. When Lil' Buck picked up some jookin moves from his sister he was just having fun. He was surprised to discover the gangsta attitude associated with them, something that immediately boosted his confidence. There was a long tradition here of dance-offs used to resolve conflict, part of a world he'd never really been involved with, but he had no difficulty getting the respect of established jookin dancers. He was, quite simply, the best they'd ever seen.

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Lines like "Even Michael Jackson couldn't do that!" are uttered as we watch early videos of Lil' Buck's moves. He's incredibly light on his feet, flexible and possessed of the kind of wiry muscle that makes really tough work look effortless. He's playful and inventive, making use of whatever props the landscape offers him. The camera loves him and he's a natural fit for YouTube. Getting noticed leads to him getting involved with a local ballet programme which teaches kids from poor backgrounds for free - and to attracting the attention of Yo-Yo Ma. Dancing The Swan, he happened to be filmed (on a phone) by Spike Jonze and became a viral sensation, and then things really took off.

If you're already familiar with Lil' Buck's work, it's probably in the context of his subsequent career. Wallecan doesn't spend much time on that. He's interested in where the dancer came from, the mechanics of how he uses his body and how it affected him to experience such massive changes in his life when he was still very young. There's none of the ego one might expect in a young man whose star rose so fast. Rather, Lil' Buck, for all his prowess and flair, evinces a childlike sense of wonder at all the changes in his world. Reflections on the moment when he realised Yo-Yo Ma was actually quite important are charming and one gets the distinct impression that this same quality is present in the way he approaches dance.

There's a magical quality about this film that coalesces in Wallecan's perspectives on Memphis landscapes and the dance performances themselves. Like Lil' Buck's dance, the film is so smooth and fluid that one barely notices how much is going on. It's full of interesting stories and observations, and provides plenty for dance enthusiasts to get to grips with whilst remaining accessible to the casual viewer. it also highlights the skill that can be involved in the dances people do on street corners for their own entertainment, treating jookin with the same respect as classical ballet. Wherever your own preference lies, there's no disputing Lil' Buck's talent. Wallecan invites us to share his sense of wonder as we watch.

Reviewed on: 03 May 2019
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Dancer Lil’ Buck grew up jookin and bucking on the streets of Memphis. After a breathtaking video of him dancing to Camille Saint-Saëns’ “The Swan” accompanied by cellist Yo-Yo Ma went viral, everything changed.

Director: Louis Wallecan

Writer: Louis Wallecan

Starring: Lil' Buck

Year: 2019

Runtime: 85 minutes

Country: France, US


Tribeca 2019

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