Originally published on August 19, 2006 via friendster.
Go ahead and exhale that sigh of relief, because I have seen Step Up!, the review is in ... and the sacrosanct Dance Movie Formula © (no steal this, its mine; von holt has joint custody) has been faithfully observed. Well, mostly. Before I digress, consider this a spoiler alert as I intend to touch upon every last detail of the film.
I believe I've mentioned before how I love dance movies, but let me reiterate that I always have and always will. The dance movie genre and resulting Formula is a first, true, deep--nay, even obsessive--love. We're talking back to elementary school sleepover days in Hawaii, wherein my girlfriends and I would rewind (VHS, people, old school) Dirty Dancing again and again to watch the muscly, twisty back of the then-young-and-sexy Patrick Swayze during the "Hungry Eyes" song. Or we'd hold our collective breath as Scott Hastings (Paul Mecurio) slid across the floor on his knees, Elvis-style, a dramatic flourish during the all-important paso doble with his partner, Frannie, just moments before they were disqualified for being MAGNIFICENT and FIERCE in Strictly Ballroom! Or we'd watch Grease (VHS) or, in later years, the special features on the DVDs of Save the Last Dance and Honey, and begin trying to dance the routines too.
Disclaimers now dealt with... let's move on to Step Up! without further delay! Socioeconomic lacuna that must be bridged? Check. Lead characters who excel at nearly diametrically opposed styles of dance who learn to blend the two together in an novel and refreshing way? Check. Dance as an expression of love between two characters who seem stupidly unable to express it themselves? Check. Dance as escape from the hardship of one's daily life and/or a ticket to a better life? Check. The evolving skill of the protagonists at dance being a not-so-tongue-in-cheek expression of their growing skill at the horizontal tango? Check. Invigorating and innovative--not to mention just plain HOTT--scenes in dance club? CHECKITY CHECK CHECK. Someone dies or gets shot or gets an botched abortion or is almost raped or gets in trouble with the cops or finds their marriage on the rocks or finds themselves caught in the middle of the Cuban revolution or is bulemic? Check. The illicit first kiss actually being illicit? Check. At least 5 people overheard when leaving the movie theater saying "OMG, that makes me want to go dancing"? Check. So trashy and bad its extra-guiltily good? CHECKITY CHECKITY CHECK CHECK CHECK.
Now to the obvious question you're asking yourself: How is this movie about a ballet dancing girl and a hip-hop dancing boy any different from Save the Last Dance? Afterall, the plotline is very similar: a boy from "the streets" brings his "flavah" to the dancing of a girl who's grown up in a more sheltered world and with arguably the most traditional style of dance--ballet or ballet/modern--and in the end she manages to bridge the two in a performance that earns her a place in the dance world. Well, I'll tell you. The more pivotal character of the two protagonists is the male lead. While this is hardly the first instance (cf. Footloose and both versions of Shall We Dance?), it is a rare turn. Tyler Gage is a white foster kid with a shitty home life from the wrong side of Maryland's tracks. Nora is a white girl attending the elite Maryland School of the Arts. Tyler ends up having to do community service at Nora's school because he and some friends trashed her school's theater out of disrespect for the "rich kids' school." Tyler and Nora hook up because Nora's dance partner gets hurt, and Tyler fills in for him, initially, it seems, as a way to get out of janitorial/community service duties. While Tyler does enable Nora to make a more interesting (and "risky") dance routine for the senior recital at which many dance companies will be looking to hire grads, it is Nora and her love and drive for dance that make Tyler realize that he has to start taking his own life and himself seriously . . . because no one else can do it for him.
"Every second chance begins with a first step" is the tagline of the film. The second chance they speak of is this realization of Tyler's that he must take himself seriously and make his life happen they way he wants it to, rather than letting life happen to him. The point is driven hope by the brutal and needless death of his best friend's younger brother ("Skinny") in a totally random and unnecessary act of violence. This theme of overcoming all the odds to live your dreams and rise rags to riches and fame [insert more cliches here, if you possibly can] both echoes and diverges from Save the Last Dance, wherein the male lead also had to "escape" the "ghetto," but did not lack the ambition or drive to do so.
I did find it mighty unbelievable that these kids were supposed to be in high school, especially when they were going off to house parties with local thugs and dealers and hot clubs. I thought the whole movie should have been moved forward in time so that it was set at an elite arts college. Nora could be graduating from that and looking to move to a professional company. Tyler could be going to a JC or community college, or perhaps no college at all, and realize his true calling towards dance. Then again, I did grow up in Hawaii, and in a pretty sheltered setting, so perhaps I was one of the few high schoolers not (a) going to fancy shmancy clubs, (b) singing in said clubs and dating the lead singer of the band who is at least 5 years my senior, probably more, or (c) stealing cars and hanging out with drug dealers. You tell me. Anyway, it would have been a little more believable, I think, and then perhaps they could actually oof without worrying over the film ratings.
You read that right: They didn't oof. Which is one of the few (and most disappointing ways) Step Up diverged from the Dance Movie Formula. Very disappointing. Especially since the actor that plays Tyler, Channing Tatum, is pretty fine ... and thanks to Frank, you can see how fine he is without his clothes on (http://www.omgblog.com/2006/08/omg_hes_naked_channing_tatum.php#more). (Everyone should read Frank's blog if they don't already; this is especially true if you like naked men. Although he totally slams the film, I still love Frank.)
There definitely could have been more dance scenes (it was a dance movie!!). In fact, I might even suggest that this film was a little plot-heavy for a true Dance Movie of the Formula (I mean, really, all we want to see a LOT of great dancing and some falling in love/kissing/ oofing). But there were at least three that were pretty electrifying: the initial scene where Tyler is showing off for his friends/Nora is watching, the club scene, and the final dance scene, which was so triumphant that it recalled both the determination of Sara and the tenderness of Baby and Johnnie in the final scenes of Save the Last Dance and Dirty Dancing, respectively. I also appreciated that Step Up actually highlighted "vogue-ing" (which was the "street flavah" Tyler brought to Nora's more classical, mostly modern training), although I do find it mildly amusing/slightly upsetting that this style is mostly noticed when performed by white artists (hi there, Madonna!), when it actually started as mode of expression among a mostly gay, African American, poor, New York underclass (see the absolutely amazing Paris is Burning). Still it was an interesting side of hip-hop that isn't often highlighted in the mainstream, which often favors pimps and hos, overflowing bikinis and booty, gold and diamonds in your teeth (thanks, i floss to get stuff *out* of my "grill"), and simulated sex moves. Even Save the Last Dance largely skipped over vogueing as a style, except in the crowd scenes that rolled as the credits played, during which some very minor characters pulled out some very awesome vogueing dance moves. Speaking of which, I also very much missed the final dance scene in Step Up!, usually played as credits roll, where either the main characters fade into a crowd scene (Strictly Ballroom, Dirty Dancing, Dirty Dancing 2, etc.) or different minor characters take the stage and sort of freestyle (see esp. Save the Last Dance).
I could keep talking about this film forever, but I am going to reign it in. I realize that the two times I've tried to sit down and write about dance films I ran into trouble because it's hard to focus my thoughts on just the single film. I see them as part of the larger picture, the entire oeuvre, the sacred Formula, and because I have not yet sat down to really write out my dissertation on the topic, every time I review a dance film, I am sorely tempted to do so. Organizing my thoughts to write about Step Up! has actually taken four days (not straight through, people, I'm not that crazy). But, still... I mean I love dance movies, but FOUR DAYS?! That's fucked up. Especially because I have two jobs that pay me (with work that needs to be done) and any creative energies should go into revising (ugh, actually rewriting) my novel. (Props to Krissa and Joe for inspiring me, each in their own way, to reopen it up and then send the triage unit in... Read Krissa's blog [http://www.petithiboux.com/] and check out Joe's site [http://www.midnightpudding.com/]... These are two young writers that I deeply and incredibly admire.)