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"Dark City Beneath the Beat" captures the wealth of creativity in Baltimore City. Photo by Marlayna Demond '11 for UMBC

Review: Documentary “Dark City Beneath the Beat” finds plenty of bright spots in Baltimore

The documentary “Dark City Beneath the Beat,” originally screened at the online-only 2020 South by Southwest film festival, hit Netflix on April 16, 2021, nearly a full year after its original release. According to the Netflix bio, the director, TT the Artist, “captures the irrepressible bounce and infectious beats of a Baltimore club scene that demands to be seen and heard.”

This description gives little to go on. At a cursory glance, one could be forgiven for thinking the film is like many of the other docu-fodder films found on Netflix: a historical dive into the roots and origins of what is now considered Baltimore club music, brimming with archival footage, interviews and the like.

In fact, “Dark City” is a good deal more complex than that, and serves more to celebrate Baltimore’s vibrant club culture than firmly define it. 

Viewers going into “Dark City” expecting a traditional documentary experience might end up disappointed. TT the Artist paints a gorgeous and compelling portrait of day-to-day life in Baltimore, but this is no clean-cut, Ken Burns affair. “Dark City,” as a documentary, is not interested in cramming the entire history of Baltimore clubbing within a one-hour time limit, nor is it even very interested in giving one single definition of “Baltimore club music.”

Instead, the documentary takes on a free-form format, eagerly switching from topic to topic at breakneck tempo, and only spending as much time on one thing as an average 3-minute club track will allow. It may be unconventional, but it is far from a bad thing. “Dark City” is about Baltimore as much as it is about Baltimore’s club scene, and this free-association method of filmmaking gives an incredibly unique perspective on both.

At the core of “Dark City” is club music, yet even here, variety exists. Early in the documentary, a bystander describes club music as “music that your grandma can dance to, that your little kids can know the words to, and everybody in between.” Elsewhere in the film, TSU Terry, dance choreographer for the team “Team Squad Up,” describes Baltimore club music as “a rush — raw, energy, motion.” Later still, Baltimore DJ Mighty Mark gives a more technical definition of club music: “[club music] is in the drum patterns, the ‘dum, dum, dum-dum-dum,’ the hi-hat, the 808, the horns, the break, the snare.”

There is certainly some overlap in these definitions — movement, energy, rhythm, danceability — but the diversity here is no accident. Club music means a lot of things to a lot of different Baltimoreans, and TT the Artist and company are happy to show off these differences.

This variety of life is reflected in every aspect of the filmmaking, from the score to the cinematography to the topics discussed. The soundtrack is a mish-mash of decades of predominantly African American music, spanning from old standards like “Minnie the Moocher” and “St. James Infirmary Blues” to modern tracks from native Baltimore artists like Diamond K, Blaqstarr and the aforementioned Mighty Mark.

This soundtrack is another element for which the documentary deserves high praise — just like the rest of the film, it is all local, all homegrown. Absent are the professor interviews and infographics which so clog many more traditional documentaries. The people in this documentary, aside from being dancers, DJ artists, street performers or seafood merchants, are Baltimoreans, through and through.

Another aspect of the documentary which varies quite frequently is its focus, though on this account it unfortunately suffers a bit. In trying to show every side of Baltimore, “Dark City” devotes its hour-long runtime to a myriad of subject matters. At any one time, the documentary can be displaying orange-suited flash mobs along the Inner Harbor, intimate porchside interviews in Baltimore’s Cherry Hill neighborhood, passionate retellings of Freddie Gray’s death or solitary shell-shuckers in a seafood market. 

Occasionally, this lends an unfortunate scatterbrained quality to the film. At one point, there is a jarring transition from a sobering account of the Freddie Gray murder to men dancing shirtless to the refrain “we don’t give a fuck” and wearing comically large gold chains, a moment that feels equal parts bizarre and tone deaf.

For the most part, though, this division of focus works in the film’s favor. The seafood markets, the neighborhoods of Cherry Hill (“where someone has been shot on almost every street corner,” according to one of the interviewees), the Inner Harbor, all of it exists together in Baltimore, and TT the Artist does not shy away from putting all of these facets of Baltimore on display. Through this effort, though some focus is lost, the film manages to deliver a vision of Baltimore with massive, intimate scope.

The first lines of the film, spoken by a woman on a street corner, seem most indicative of the film’s central thesis: “My opinion of Baltimore? I’ll put it to you like this: it’s good and bad. Fucking murders and drugs, all that shit, but other than that, I love my city, and I will rep it ‘til the day I die.” These lines cast a shadow over the rest of the film — Baltimore is a city of highs and lows, and “Dark City” is quite unafraid to show both. 

About halfway through the film, the focus shifts to Sisters Saving the City, a youth recovery center in Baltimore. One of the workers there, artist Neek B’Chillin, states that, “In Baltimore, everything is dealt with hostile. Throughout Baltimore we meet a lot of kids who are very passionate, but don’t have any direction … . The heroin epidemic hit Baltimore extremely hard. We were living in a place of turmoil without many outlets whatsoever. Once our kids hit that age, 17, 18, they’re kinda looking around like, what’s next?”

The truth in these words is undeniable. Art, as a means of expression, is the guiding light which allows a documentary like “Dark City” to exist. Although the documentary is at times scattered, its ability to display the abundance of creativity, thriving in the streets of Baltimore today is an impressive and admirable feat. Congratulations to TT the Artist and company for crafting such a compelling portrait of Baltimore.