5, 6, 7, 8…
Excuse my forthcoming rant, but it seems only proper to discuss such passionate matters on the eve before another quote-unquote Dance Movie hits theaters (I’m unwilling to consider it a real subgenre, therefore it’s not worthy of real quotation marks). Battle of the Year 3D dropped its first trailer in front of the most recent Step Up installment – was it the fourth film in the series, or the twelfth? I can’t remember – in the back half of summer 2012. Heading into the tail end of September 2013, the film is only now getting a theatrical release following a nine month delay due to God knows what. Featuring the well-known faces of Lost’s Josh Holloway, former Nickelodeon star Josh Peck, and pop star Chris Brown, the film’s Pitch Perfect-esque storyline and intention of latching on to the current popularity of dance seemed to be in its favor, but the ‘powers that be’ must have doubts. But instead of slipping it onto DVD shelves or burying it deep within the Netflix Instant roster, it’s finally leaping into theaters only a week and a half after the finale of So You Think You Can Dance’s tenth season.
In just a few moments, we’ll be getting into the meat of the topic at hand, but let me preface: I come from a dance background and fell into a very deep love for dance when I was young watching classic Hollywood musicals. My entire family has an affinity for the arts – my dad can rival me in cinephilia, my mom’s an English teacher, and my younger brother is a passionate saxophonist – but we all found, and still find, a common ground when viewing movie musicals. It covers a ground that we all enjoy, and for me, the best films of the bunch involve tap dancing, which is sensible as I’ve been a tap dancer for thirteen years. Unfortunately, revisiting these films is like looking through a visual time machine for Hollywood’s intent on creating conceptualized worlds allowing voyeuristic escapism no longer includes the wondrous, dance-filled musical.
We get the occasional Les Miserables or Dreamgirls, both inspired by hit Broadway productions, and the Best Picture winning The Artist was a glowing piece of nostalgia. But gone are the crisp and vibrant days where the likes of Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly, Eleanor Powell, Ann Miller, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gregory Hines, Patrick Swayze, Debbie Allen, Donald O’Connor, and, yes, John Travolta exemplified cinematic dance performance; now we have dance popularized through the reality show format – Dancing With the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance – and showcased on film to mirror that type of popularity. We no longer have strong films with great characters that use dance to propel the narrative, instead we have prolonged, over-produced dance sequences taped together by a flimsy narrative incorporating characters whose intentions, personalities, relationships, and individual arcs aren’t at all motivated by the dance setting.
Big screen dancing became a standard in the Golden Age of Hollywood. This treasured black and white era housed the collection of Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers musicals (a whopping ten collaborations), widely considered the best pairing of any dancers-turned-actors. The on-screen chemistry radiated for well over a decade and their partnership, though flaring at times behind the scenes, was divine upon grand projection and as romantic as any heartwarming romance released today. Were a modern release to even attempt the same kind of formula, it would immediately be labeled as a Dance Movie – like Step Up, Take the Lead, Stomp the Yard or Honey. Fred & Ginger’s gems – Swing Time, Top Hat, The Gay Divorcee, etc. – aren’t given any definitive distinction. If anything, they’re considered musicals, but today there’s a separation even between musicals and Dance Movies.
The one immediate difference separating the film types is overall quality. I’ll admit that one of the more recent Step Up films surprised me with its creative coverage of massive dance sequences, but that does very little for my appreciation of the film in its entirety. The current Dance Movies put an emphasis on the dancing only, failing to do much of anything that distinguishes them from being 90-minute music videos. They star beautiful people with otherworldly movement abilities but many have questionable acting talent and rely on “stardom” inherited from a reality television program and having a verified Twitter account.
I respect the self-motivated professional dancer – those who are paid to do what they love and find airtime during award show performances, music video shoots, dance convention opportunities, and choreography jobs ranging from local work to international gigs. That’s an admirable, and admittedly tough, career path, but when success does strike, it doesn’t mean these dancers should earn starring roles in a feature films. Kevin Bacon got Footloose because he was an actor who could dance, Patrick Swayze got Dirty Dancing because he was an actor who could dance, the same goes for Jennifer Beals with Flashdance, and Ann Miller for On the Town, and Eleanor Powell in Broadway Melody of 1940. Even in the rare case of a prominent dancer earning his initial acting fame through his casting in a dance film – Mikhail Baryshnikov in Turning Point, Gregory Hines in The Cotton Club – a lot of faith is instilled in the dancers’ capacity to rise to the occasion and wear two very different hats. I’m not looking to take anything away from Kathryn McCormick and Ryan Guzman’s inspiring facilities in Step Up: Revolution, but their wooden acting points toward a further decline regarding the presentation of dance in film.
Outside of the Fred & Ginger saga, Hollywood put as much effort into dance-filled musicals entering the mid-20th Century as they do with their excess of biopics currently. An American in Paris, being one of the most famous, featured the astounding Gene Kelly. Kelly has the privilege of being remembered as not only the greatest dancer in the history of the film (some may be tempted to counter), but also a highly versatile dramatic actor and a very talented director. He starred in many great dance-heavy films like It’s Always Fair Weather, Summer Stock, Ziegfeld Follies, and Anchors Away (for which he earned an Academy Award nomination). Most famously, he is almost entirely responsible for the greatest film musical: Singin’ In The Rain. Its self-reflexive and mightily ingenious plot only uses dance when the story naturally calls for it. Each sequence is used to develop a character’s feelings, or that character’s relationship with another character or toward a plot point. One elaborate, ambitious, and prolonged sequence could be disputed as a non-contextual spectacle, but its placement within the film’s story is actually wholly necessary. Creativity fuels the film’s brilliance as much as the dazzling choreography; when a film like Singin’ in the Rain exists, there is no reason why today’s Dance Movies can’t look for avenues that lead to similar success. It’s aggravating to watch a film that is so inarguably bad be saved by flashy dance sequences, when different casting and a more concentrated, fluid storyline would make it something else entirely. Like I said, The Artist in 2011 came as close as any film has in years to matching the same level of classic Hollywood ingenuity – it mostly tells the story of Singin’ in the Rain from a silent film perspective – but even being a diamond in the rough and garnering Oscar glory didn’t stop it from becoming largely forgotten in just two years time.
Hollywood’s negligence and seeming indifference toward the mending of this problem is what has allowed it to lose one of its most enjoyable film types. It pines away at history textbooks and Broadway looking to adapt every historical figure, every major lifetime event, every stage production into something that is screen worthy, but so much effort goes wasted when these big properties go bust. If original content is hard enough to come by, it seems that the best I’ll ever get as a lifelong dancer are things like the Step Up series and, sad as it may be, Battle of the Year 3D. I can also tune into Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance, but I already do that so irregularly, plus my opinion of the show is an unending internal conflict. Before this past season began, I had come across four of the eventual contestants personally – one is actually a very good friend – and I applaud their talents, the popularity they and dance has received, and their undoubtedly bright futures in the dance world. But, that show does not revive dance’s image as I believe it should, or could. It doesn’t shine the beautiful light that these classic Hollywood films once did. It brings it into our homes, but fails to bring it into most viewers’ hearts.
I dream of a revitalized Hollywood where the films of a Fred & Ginger type, or a White Nights, or Turning Point, or Saturday Night Fever can feature true triple threat talent with directorial prestige and a nuanced story to boot. I look forward to seeing a film that strives for creative heights like Singin’ in the Rain, more regularly than a silent French import with punchy music and a sprightly little dog. Where Black Swan can be considered a musical, or a contemporary retelling of Swan Lake, as much as it is a psychological thriller. Whether I have to make these films myself or pool all of my resources in order for them to happen, it pains me, as a film enthusiast and a dancer, that Hollywood is letting its grasp on cinematic dance slip through its fingers, surviving only as a shell of itself in mostly subpar efforts.
But until it’s gone forever, I’ll be reluctantly taking the best of what there is to be offered. That means, if you look around your theater this weekend, you just might see me at a showing of Battle of the Year 3D. I’ll be tapping my feet and searching endlessly for a silver lining…
Let me know if you find any.
Article by Mike Murphy