Truly, 1984 was the year of Lucinda Dickey: a burgeoning megastar who headlined three – count ‘em – enormous hits that defined the era. Straddling the cinematic world like a colossus, this former Solid Gold dancer used her extraordinary work on Breakin’ to eclipse Katharine Hepburn as-
Okay, I made that up. I’m betting you’ve never heard of Dickey before now because she possesses fewer thespian skills than most species of sea cucumber. We don’t cry for her because she married a nice producer, but mainly because she helped make Breakin’ and its sequel one of the greatest guilty pleasures ever. (And just you wait for her turn in Ninja III: The Domination.) She was enabled by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus: deranged Israeli producers whose Cannon Pictures defined 80s movie trash.
And they don’t get trashier than Breakin’. The cast is amateurish, the sets laughable, the plot a bad joke and the whole thing drenched in the kind of hasty desperation one needs to exploit a fleeting fad without ever once understanding it. But because its ridiculous qualities come swathed in such hideously dated trappings – beginning with the break-dancing phenomenon itself – it’s awfully hard to hate.
And we really shouldn’t be talking about plot or story with this thing. It’s like trying to get a duck to sing The Magic Flute: everyone ends up embarrassed and it pisses the duck off to no end. The few threads of narrative involve Dickey’s classically trained dancer discovering the joys of break dancing, despite the disapproval of her high-falutin’ agent (Christopher McDonald) who doesn’t like her hanging out with, you know, brown people. Said brown people – Ozone (Adolfo “Shabba-Doo” Quiñones) and Turbo (Michael "Boogaloo Shrimp” Chambers) – have a fierce rivalry with another break-dancing gang, the origins and execution of which remain blissfully murky. These kids just want to dance, see, and they don’t like The Man telling them they can’t. We get a few vague nods to West Side Story, some gorgeously goofy fashion statements, and for some reason an Old West barroom brawl somewhere in Venice Beach. What kind of soulless monster can say no to kitsch that potent?
Basically, it’s all an excuse to dance. And as risible as the rest of the movie is, the three stars know how to do that. In fact, director Joel Silberg pretty much just points the camera at them and lets them go, pausing only for amateurish pratfalls and performances so wooden you’ll be picking splinters out of your eyeballs for weeks. Again, that’s not the point, and if I can be entirely honest, the film has a sweetness and an innocence that makes it really hard to pick on. Sure, they insist on presenting Dickey’s Liberace-gay buddy (Phineas Newborn III) as a ladies’ man, and the well-meaning racial politics are quite primeval, but it’s all so chaste and guile-free that these issues provoke more chuckles than frowns. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t legitimately impressed by Turbo’s extended “broom dance,” or didn’t cackle with glee at the sight of Shooter McGavin glaring daggers into various costars. (Ice-T makes his film debut here as well, proving once and for all that the man’s street cred started at zero and went down from there.)
Once again, it leaves us grappling with the “entertaining vs. actually good” divide. Movies don’t get worse than Breakin’ (okay, they do: the immortal Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo came out just seven months later), but neither do they aspire to such heights of unintentional hilarity. Tack that on to a rapidly fading dance fad and you have an 80s time capsule that anyone who survived the era must see. You’ll hate yourself in the morning – shoving your leg warmers and acid-washed jeans back into the closet before anyone can see them – but in those moments of weakness, when you really need a guy named Shabba-Doo to show you the moves, Breakin’ will be there for you. It was there for Dickey, after all, and cinema just wouldn’t be the same without her.