The Step Up movies keep dance alive and well in Hollywood cinema

The Step Up movies keep dance alive and well in Hollywood cinema

With Run The Series, A.A. Dowd examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

Once upon a time, dancing was a talent the dream factory valued, and cutting a rug was one route to movie stardom. But the age of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire has come and gone. Tastes have changed, priorities have shifted, and America no longer expects fancy footwork in its movies. These days, even studio musicals require little in the way of dance-floor bona fides; note, for recent example, a lavish production like Les Misérables, whose idea of choreography is to stick its stars in the center of the frame and let them warble straight into the lens. Hollywood, once a nexus for boogying hopefuls, is now more like the town from Footloose. And Kevin Bacon himself would have trouble putting some tap back into this industry’s toes.

What this means for American moviegoers is that opportunities to see anyone bust a move on the silver screen have severely dwindled. That’s a real shame, as there are few better uses for a movie camera than pointing it at the gyrating limbs of an impassioned hoofer. But all hope is not lost! Outside of Bollywood imports and concert films, the most reliable source of cinematic swing in this country has to be the street-dancer movie—a post-millennial breed of crowd-pleaser in which plucky young breakers stomp the yard and feel the noise, when not romancing a fellow dancer or getting served by the scowling members of a rival crew. For the most popular example of this genre, look no further than the Step Up series, which just hit the five-film mark and is showing no signs of slowing down.

Corny underdog sagas about the unifying power of dance, the Step Up movies probably have more detractors than defenders in the critical community. Yes, the performances tend to be mediocre at best, but that’s because the young men and women who star in these movies have been hired for their (considerable) gifts as dancers, not their acting chops. And if the plots are predictable and clichéd, they’re also largely irrelevant: In this franchise, “story” is just connective tissue between synchronized dance routines. “Characters,” furthermore, are just bodies in ecstatic motion, pausing periodically for the formality of dialogue.

To compare these formulaic films—whose set-pieces arrive like the clockwork killings of a slasher pic—to the song-and-dance classics of the Golden Age is to court ridicule. But don’t they locate a similar pleasure center, wowing their audiences with the elastic magic of the human body? Isn’t there a touch of Busby Berkeley in the elaborate choreography, and of Vincente Minnelli in the color and clarity of the big numbers? The fashion, music, and specific dance moves may be modern, but the appeal is almost timeless: At heart, these are old-fashioned and even wholesome entertainments, built around the earnest belief that the language of dance is universal. Sometimes, the throwback vibe is blatantly explicit.

All of the Step Up movies take place in a world where every problem, no matter how big or small, can be solved by dancing. It is a great equalizer, capable of tearing down barriers of class, race, and gender: On the dance floor, all that matters is if you have the moves. Every film builds to a massive, climactic group dance that mends friendships, silences haters, requites romances, saves neighborhoods, pays the rent, and completely ties up all dangling plot strands. Watching one of these invariably impressive deus ex dance-offs, it’s hard not to think of the glorious final minutes of Minnelli’s An American In Paris: As in that musical masterpiece, conflicts are magically eradicated through spectacle, the filmmakers blatantly shrugging off the need to resolve them. Rather than go through the usual third-act motions, why not just give the audience what it came to see?

Clarity is an underrated virtue of genre cinema. More often than not, the tools of the trade are used to obscure the artificial elements. In action movies, for example, editing helps preserve the illusion: Usually it’s not an actual car chase we’re witnessing, but the impression of one, created through a skillfully arranged series of shots. The Step Up movies, by contrast, put a premium on authentic physicality—on real action. Sometimes the editing will be rhythmic, the filmmakers cutting with the stomp and sway of the performers. Most of the time, however, it’s clean and functional. The camera is often positioned on the outer edge of the dance floor, its lens titled upward to get the best possible view of the action. Shots hold for long stretches of time; not cutting becomes a prevalent strategy, designed to maximize the viewer’s appreciation of the artistry on display. These scenes function as exhibitions for their agile stars, and thus privilege visibility above all else. Watching them is like scoring a front-row seat to the show. And what a show it usually turns out to be.

The original Step Up, released in 2006, remains the most conventionally, dramatically satisfying of the series, because it’s the one that plays most like an honest-to-God movie, rather than just a string of bravura set-pieces. Basically reconfiguring Good Will Hunting into a teen dance picture, the film offers an opposites-attract romance between an uptight modern dance student (Jenna Dewan, before she added Tatum to the end of her name) and a wrong-side-of-the-tracks heartthrob (Channing Tatum, in his first big role) doing community service at her Baltimore art school. Tatum remains the only true movie star to emerge from this franchise, so it’s perhaps no surprise that his character is the most traditionally charismatic protagonist the Step Up movies have ever managed. He would later marry his costar, which helps explain the excellent chemistry they share.

Step Up is ultimately more of a charming—if slightly generic—love story than an ode to its featured art form. The world of dance is just a flavorful backdrop for the romance, as well as a source of cultural tension. (She’s classical. He’s new school. Inevitably, their styles merge.) The actual dance scenes, organically sprinkled throughout and modest in scope, can hardly said to be the movie’s main draw. (Though Tatum, a former exotic dancer, certainly has moves.) That would dramatically change in the sequels. The Step Up series didn’t really find its groove or hit its stride until 2008’s Step Up 2: The Streets, when Jon Chu directed the first of his two consecutive installments. Chu, a member of an actual dance crew, is the closest this franchise has to a defining auteur. He begins each of his sequels with someone waxing poetic about dance in voice-over, and the sentiment feels completely genuine. The main character of Step Up 3D, the first stereoscopic sequel, is actually an aspiring filmmaker, torn as to how to best express his love of the medium. It’s hard not to see this blandly portrayed dreamer (Rick Malambri) as a surrogate for his director.

Part two inverts the class struggle of part one: Instead of dunking a working-class troublemaker into a snooty academic environment, the sequel sends a group of art-school kids into the streets of Baltimore, where they have to prove their cred to a community of skeptics. The message, hammered home through the wish-fulfillment finale, is essentially the same: Anyone, from any background, can win respect by mastering the craft. Where The Streets deviates from its predecessor is in the introduction of a whole crew of dancers—a development that would permanently transform Step Up into an ensemble franchise, egalitarian in its belief in the strength of numbers. Both of Chu’s entries present colorful posses of dance specialists, while the Occupy-themed Step Up Revolution treats its flash-mob collective like the team members in a heist movie, each blessed with a different valuable skill set. Most recently, this month’s Step Up All In offered an all-star squad, pulling characters from the other three sequels into an Avengers-style supergroup.

As Ignatiy Vishnevetsky points out in his A.V. Club review of that new installment, the later Step Up movies have a lot in common with the later Fast & Furious films. Certainly, the progression of these two franchises is similar: Both gradually abandon the relative grittiness of their opening chapters, growing bigger, sillier, and gaudier with each new entry. The first Step Up actually killed off one of its characters, providing a sense of real danger to offset its feel-good qualities. But as the series leapfrogs from Baltimore to New York to Miami to Las Vegas, the tone gets lighter and the reality a bit more flexible. The routines also become more outlandish, the dancers donning gaudy costumes, incorporating crazy props, and applying goofy themes to their acts. (Part five features a mad-scientist music-video that would be totally laughable were it not for the amazing, stuttering moves of the dancers.) The uptick in gonzo showmanship coincides with the adoption of 3-D, a gimmick that has simultaneously encouraged the filmmakers to go for broke and necessitated that they carefully arrange the action in the frame. (These are the rare movies that practically demand to be seen in 3-D, if possible.)

The move to Vegas is an appropriate one, as Step Up now functions like a kind of teen-courting Cirque Du Soleil performance, dazzling its viewers with endless displays of brightly colored showboating. It’s not a bad thing: Naturalism was an awkward fit on this franchise, which is at its best when shooting for the cheap seats. Anyway, no matter how goofy the plots get or how outrageous the costumes become, the basic appeal remains the same. Step Up, in any form, is a showcase for the mind-blowing technique of its stars, whose deficiencies as thespians are eclipsed—and rendered totally forgivable—by their raw, collaborative talent. Giddily and unpretentiously, the series carries the torch for dance, providing a pleasure Hollywood has all but abandoned. And there’s something anachronistically heartening about a studio franchise whose eye-candy is au naturel. As the Step Up movies remind, there’s no special effect as special as two feet moving to a groove.


Next up: The Howling

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