The Plateau of Dance: Step Up (2006) - Can't Stop the Movies
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The Plateau of Dance: Step Up (2006)

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Andrew COMMENTARYI seem to recall having a certain fondness for the Step Up series.  Heck, I mentioned it in the very first installment of this series when I was outlining just why it is I wanted to write about modern dance films.  Perhaps I was still on an adrenaline high from watching Step Up 3 again, letting the good spirits and athleticism of that film color my whole perception of the series.

It also has a bit to do with the fact that I forgot that Channing Tatum was in the first Step Up movie.  I have yet to see a movie improved by his bulky frame and monotone charisma.  The idea that directors Anne Fletcher and Mico Heltborg could have found him an appealing lead for a hip hop/ballet dance movie is somewhat terrifying, but I suppose that the writing was on the wall.

Like Elvis before him, minus most of the natural talent and presence, Tatum was the puppet in an attempt to white-wash the proliferation of dance movies released.  By this time So You Think You Can Dance? and other like-minded television shows were gaining a pretty wide audience.  Despite the modest success of You Got Served and Roll Bounce there really wasn't a film that had tapped into the massive revenue potential of millions of Americans watching dance shows every week.

In response, we got Step Up.  I'd almost be offended by its cold calculation if it weren't so fundamentally bland.  In brief, Step Up is about a rough and tumble handsome white man named Tyler (Channing Tatum), who protects his black friends during a brief stint of vandalism and is sentenced to community service because we are to believe that Tatum is young enough not to be tried as an adult.  While he is working off his time he and Nora (Jenna Dewan) fall in love and create a dance routine blending his brand of hip-hop dance and ballet.

Settle in, it's well over an hour before the first actual dance scene.

This is Save The Last Dance with a heaping of melodrama and a mean streak that completely blindsided me.  Even though You Got Served dealt with the rough parts of the kids lives and had a hilariously inexplicable death, Step Up pulls a gun on Tyler early just to show how "real" his world is in the most crass way possible.  It's a bizarre bit of role reversal showing a black man reacting violently and without thinking to a white man trying to just live in his world.  Combine that with a number of references to Tyler just trying to survive as a minority and my inner race theorist begins to weep openly.

Nora's plot-line is less offensive by sheer virtue of hardly existing.  In another film it might be refreshing to see that her mother (Deirdre Lovejoy) really wants her to succeed in dance had she appeared in more than 3 minutes of the film.  Regardless she exists as everyone else exists, to prop up Tyler's "minority" efforts to succeed in spite of his generally uncouth behavior and cheer him on throughout his transformation to dance king.

In another strange bit of reversal, all of the black characters in the film have suddenly become nothing but supporting players to Tyler's issues - what few there are, anyway.  None develop personalities (though it is a stretch to say that Tyler himself develops anything beyond the muscles he flashes) and are used as tragically pointless plot-points to give him more motivation.

Forget what I wrote about cold calculation, this is just horribly cynical.

Not five minutes in and a gun is drawn.

What's most bizarre is that Step Up doesn't even bother to give us a proper dance sequence until we're well over an hour into the film.  Yes, there are plenty of scenes showing Tyler showing off for his friends and Nora practicing, but nothing that is on the level of the battles in You Got Served or Rize.  Then once we finally get that sequence it's filled with some of the most lifeless grooving this side of a Woody Allen flick.

That's harsh and a bit misleading (the dancing in Everyone Says I Love You wasn't half-bad), but these dance films had been produced for well over two years at this point.  There was a plethora of talent on television to choose from, not to mention a healthy hip-hop dance scene in just about every major city of America.  So not only did the producers of Step Up provide a white-washed product, they couldn't even provide one that was copying the very moves that it set out to exploit.

The only aspect of Step Up that works at all is its soundtrack, but I must admit its because I have a certain fondness for dark hip-hop.  The score is surprisingly sparse in anything that might brighten the mood, instead choosing to fill the edges with songs featuring oppressive strings like Pablo's "Show Me The Money" or minimalist groove of "Ain't Cha" featuring Clipse, Re-Up Gang and Roscoe P. Goldchain.  There were plenty of moments I was definitely lost in the music, but that's a bit of a problem when I should be more interested in what's happening onscreen.

Though I suppose that might have distracted the film from the first cinema romance between a tank and a sparrow.

I'm somewhat terrified that my mind could so openly disregard the more troubling aspects of Step Up.  From the technical standpoint, to the strange white-washing, to the crass commercialization, to the dancing that the movie was supposed to provide.  It's strange that this is both the series that has provided the entire genre its high-point (Step Up 3 is still every bit as wonderful as I remember) and its possible lowest point.

But the change worked.  Off a budget of roughly 13 million dollars Step Up went on to gross more than one hundred million and turned into a fairly sizable sleeper hit.  Even the modest successes of you Got Served and Roll Bounce couldn't compete with that kind of money.  The crowd had spoken and they decided that cynicism and rote routines were better than watching high-spirited athleticism and passion in action.

Step Up represents the first step in a long plateau, edging toward the end for modern dance films.  But it's not always easy to see the signs in advance.  A pretty big warning though?  Antonio Banderas in a message film.

Next week we see the road that led to Step Up with Antonio Banderas in Take the Lead.  Step Up may be the primary offender, but it didn't act alone.

The Schedule
September 20th – Take the Lead
September 27th – Feel the Noise
October 4th – Planet B-Boy
October 11th – Stomp the Yard
October 18th – How She Move
October 25th –  B-Girl
November 1st – Make It Happen
November 8th – Step Up 2 the Streets
November 15th – Dance Flick
November 22nd – Step-Up 3D

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Step Up (2006)

Directed by Anne Fletcher and Mico Heltborg.
Screenplay by Duane Adler and Melissa Rosenberg.
Starring Channing Tatum and Jenna Dewan.

Posted by Andrew

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