Jeremy Elkin’s documentary is a love letter to the skater culture of the ’90s, and the punks and rebels that filled it.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2021 Tribeca film festival.)
It took me towards the middle of Jeremy Elkin‘s documentary All the Streets Are Silent to realize that Eli Gesner, the videographer behind much of the New York skateboard culture in the 90s, was the prototype for the character Fourth Grade in Jonah Hill’s mid90s. Fourth Grade was the kid I identified with the most, being the shy and silent observer to the antics and adventures of a tight-knit crew of talented skaters and artists. All throughout that film, he captured it all with his trusty palmcorder, only to eventually debut the footage in a video mixtape at the end. Such an expression that I also didn’t realize until All the Streets Are Silent was inspired by Gesner’s work as a kid with a camera.
All the Streets Are Silent: The Convergence of Hip-Hop and Skateboarding (1987-1997) is a film of revelation and discovery, of influence and exploration, and of what once was in New York for a specific time. Across all of the neighborhoods in the city, we see skaters riding and doing tricks in the middle of the street, on curbs and in parks, and over trash cans and benches, bonded together by this free expression of self.
In the film, the explosion of hip-hop on the East Coast – as represented by NYC – would come from DJs at clubs to renegade radio jockeys, bringing together musicians and lyricists who would change music history down the line. All of this, too, was documented by Eli Gesner in Hi-8 format.
It’s no coincidence that the film mid90s is titled as such, since a real video mixtape, in the real mid-’90s, pulled from Gesner’s archive of incredibly personal and outrageously vibrant filmmaking, came out into the ether, debuting at a local film festival, ultimately bridging rap music and skating together forever. All the Streets Are Silent is itself, too, incredibly personal and outrageously vibrant to cultures shared by location and era, but differs of course from video mixtape to mixtape in both polish and intent.
This documentary is no eulogy. It’s an appreciation.
The hidden and hush-hush component of All the Streets Are Silent is most assuredly in showing how both rap and skating communities were sold and marketed to the world. Various entrepreneurs, who became somewhat famous from their street action, would form companies and build brands, like Zoo York and Supreme, that would bring skating into the mainstream (bolstered by Gesner’s video work as well).
Skating wasn’t just something to do, but now the thing to do for many, and the only thing to buy. With dope soundtracks and killer skills, younger generations would pick up on a culture whose history would be unfamiliar to them. All the Streets Are Silent isn’t simply a celebration of what was, but documentation of what is, and what was is now gentrified. Heavily so.
But this documentary is no eulogy. It’s an appreciation.
All the Streets Are Silent is at its best when showing the people – the punks and the rebels – doing their thing, and their thing was creating beautifully gritty and straight-up real landscapes and memories through danger, whether it came from skating or rapping or mixing. There’s a true sense of striking against “the man” to all that’s exhibited in the film, even the marketing and selling of what turned into a commodity and a product. Somehow, that was art too. Somehow, that was an expression, but on a larger canvas. And All the Streets Are Silent puts the pieces together to form a puzzle of idealism, of craft, of rebellion, and of freedom – in spite of whatever co-opting would happen.
Did cinema co-opt the two genres, or was it the third element? Bridging the gap, film and video proved just as dynamic. Such photography of such groups of such kids being such misfits gave the convergence of rap and skating such soul and such a voice, giving everyone such a thrill and many chills. You don’t need to be a Coppola to become a Coppola. Just pick up a camera, grab a mic, and ride a board.