'Roll Bounce' at 15: How Malcolm D. Lee's rollerskating film used its '70s soundtrack to perfection

Kevin Polowy
·Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
·5 mins read
'Roll Bounce' (Fox Searchlight)
'Roll Bounce' (Fox Searchlight)

Roll Bounce, Malcolm D. Lee’s rambunctiously entertaining coming-of-age dramedy about a teen rollerskating clique in 1970s Chicago, doesn’t open with Vaughan Mason & Crew’s “Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll,” the infectious 1979 hit from which it cribbed its title — and the rollerskating anthem to end all rollerskating anthems, a track that’s monster bassline might very well have the potency to propel motion itself.

Instead those honors go to Parliament’s 1977 funk classic “Flash Light,” the Afro-picked Xavier “X” Smith (Bow Wow, three years removed from dropping the “Lil’”) singing over George Clinton and company’s regal roars while (imagining himself) doing a solo skate-dance routine in a hollowed out rink.

You have to wait a minute or two, once X snaps back to reality, for Vaughan Mason & Crew to enter the rotation — Roll Bounce spinning two of the greatest songs of the ’70s (the latter via Wayne Brady’s DJ Johnny Feelgood) while the opening credits are still rolling to X and crew zipping around the now-populated rink with style and finesse.

It’s fitting foreshadowing for all the neck-snapping needle drops to come in Roll Bounce (which turns 15 today), an underrated gem that at least belongs in the same conversation as films like American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused when looking back at the best nostalgia-soaked teen period pieces.

While George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973) explored early-’60s cruising and Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993) looked at bicentennial stoners, Lee’s Roll Bounce — written by Norman Vance Jr. — captures the essence of rollerskating culture (particularly Black rollerskating culture) in the late ’70s.

When their go-to Palisades Garden rink is shuttered during the summer, X and trash-talking friends Junior (Brandon T. Jackson), Naps (Rick Gonzalez), Mixed Mike (Khleo Thomas) and Boo (Marcus T. Paulk) — along with neighborhood newbie Tori (Jurnee Smollett-Bell before she had the Bell) — leave Chi-town’s South Side for the boujeeier uptown skating center Sweetwater. There they take on the so-cool-he-can-make-your-little-sister-faint Sweetness (Wesley Jonathan) and his Sweetwater Rollers for roller-disco bragging rights.

And like in many a coming-of-age classic, the music is essential.

There’s Bill Withers’ all-time feel-good ballad “Lovely Day” setting the scene as X glides through his sun-soaked neighborhood on his paper route, hilariously misfiring every edition until he’s bombarded by a gang of water-balloon-packing youngins.

Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby” epitomizes X’s thirst as he watches his school boy crush Naomi (Meagan Good) down a can Pepsi in slow-mo. The Commodores’ “Easy” mellows as she later asks him out.

Sweetness wrecks a solo to KC and the Sunshine Band’s “I’m Your Boogie Man.” The Hues Corporations’ “Rock the Boat” blares as Junior gets pantsed mid-stride.

Donny Hathaway’s “For All We Know” soothes over a montage when things turn sober. Average White Band’s “Pick Up the Pieces” kicks off the climactic split-screened skating contest. The ultimate needle drop, Kool & the Gang’s “Hollywood Swinging,” lands as The Garden Boys challenge The Sweetness Rollers for the crown. The Ohio Players’ “Fire” heats up the tie-breaking showdown between X and Sweetness. Sister Sledge’s “He’s the Greatest Dancer” swings as X tries to put the final dagger in.

The timestamps weren’t necessarily all authentic. Keith Sweat’s “I Wanna Know Your Name” drips out as X’s new neighbor — Tori’s mother Vivian (Kellita Smith) — turns up across the street in MILF mode, but Sweat had barely begun making music in the ‘70s and recorded this one specifically for the soundtrack; Beyoncé and Michelle Williams also lent songs to the soundtrack. But the vibes still felt vintage.

Music is also played for laughs.

The Bee Gees? “Sounds like like something my cousin caught from his girlfriend,” Junior cracks when The Garden Boys first arrive at the disco-friendlier Sweetwater on the North Side. It’s only right that a movie set during the intersection of soul and disco take aim at the genre that would be outlasted.

One of the biggest wonders watching Roll Bounce, though, is how exactly they managed to practically encapsulate the funk, soul and disco movements of the ’70s on a reported $10 million budget… for the entire production. Beyond the artists already mentioned, you had cuts by Earth, Wind & Fire, Chaka Khan, The Sylvers, Foxy, Chic, Eddie Money and Johnny “Guitar” Watson.

How in the world did the music licensing team pull that off? Plus they still had to pay Nick Cannon, who, oddly enough shared top billing with Bow Wow on the film (must’ve been that Drumline bump) despite screen time that amounted to a glorified cameo as Sweetwater’s oddball skate renter.

In the immortal vernacular of The Garden Boys, there’s but one word to describe the superiority of Roll Bounce’s funk-and-disco-laced sounds, and how perfectly they were put to use by Lee: “DAAAAAMN!”

Stream Roll Bounce on Amazon Prime.

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