Thursday, March 23, 2006

Will Dance Movies Ever Be Good?

I just finished watching the preview for Antonio Banderas's new movie, Take the Lead, due in theaters April 7th. Is it just another dance movie? Hard to say. The dancing actually looks pretty good, but it's also heavily edited in the preview at least, so it's hard to tell if they are moving through a series of poses, or really dancing.

The thing that's totally apparent from the preview is that it is another one of those teacher movies. You know the ones, the Stand and Deliver wannabes featuring a reject group of ragamuffin inner city kids, who apparently are so rejected that they are forced to sit in the cold, dungeony basement of their school and wait for whatever reject teacher that inevitably comes to raise them above their circumstances. How do you know when this one is going to be terrible and not another brilliant one like Stand and Deliver? First, because it is made from the mold that Stand and Deliver created. Second, someone utters the obligatory phrase, the one about how no other teacher or role model has wanted to take them on, which in this case goes, "Oh, so nobody told you we were the school rejects?" It doesn't matter that it's based on a true story, they almost always are. What I would like to know is why we haven't seen another category of teacher film? Why do they all have to look like this? Where are the To Sir With Loves of our era?

Ok, well we know it's almost certainly going to be a bad teacher movie, but how will it hold up on the dance front? Well, perhaps you'd first like to know why I hate dance movies so much.

Let's get my biases and prejudices about the genre out there first. Well, in addition to all my other hats, I am a semi-professional dancer. As such I have a trained eye for dance that the non-dancer won't have. My suspension of disbelief never seems to get me beyond terrible dancing by characters who are supposed to be competition worthy or dance teachers. And why are the rest of you happy as can be when these obvious non-dancers are moving through a series of poses instead of really dancing? Is that how you think dancing looks? If so, you should really take some classes or something, because you have no idea of the bliss that dancing actually has to offer, nor apparently its cardio benefits.

Directors often say (as did the director of the miserably bad Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, a movie about a couple of crazy kids in 50s Cuba who conquer all issues through salsa) that they'd rather teach an actor to dance than a dancer to act. To this day I don't understand why these have to be considered mutually exclusive skills. What about all those actor/dancers on broadway? They seem to do ok in both spheres. And movies include non-actors all the time such as models and musicians (the latest trend is definitely the massive import of rappers into the acting world), why not bring in some amazing dancers? Shirley MacLaine was a dancer first, as were Leslie Caron, Audrey Hepburn, and many others. Maybe it's just passé to have real dancers onscreen. Today, we have Catherine Zeta Jones and J.Lo among the dancer-turned-actors. Maybe they wouldn't have been right for Havana Nights, but surely anyone would have been better than cutie pie Diego Luna who was running all over town telling interviewers that he hated salsa dancing. A very pasty looking Patrick Swayze (a dancer-turned-actor himself) did show up in the movie. But he looked old and haggard; he danced little and added nothing.

Another of my quirks is that I am a huge fan of movie musicals. I love, love, love some of the recent ones like Moulin Rouge and Chicago, as well as the old classics like Gigi, and My Fair Lady. And don't even get me started on Grease. I also love musical-style music videos like Thriller. Fred Astaire was my childhood idol and Michael Jackson got me through puberty. So when I see modern musicals that sacrifice good performances for the misguided idea that the movie will be better and have higher cred if you focus on the non-musical side, and employ non-musical actors, it really bothers me! And worse then is the dance musical that uses crappy dancers to increase this cred. What? Where's the logic there? So when these lowsy dancers inevitably win a competition or steal the show at a club, we're supposed to buy that? Oh, and watch the extras that dance in the background. They are nearly always fantastic dancers that have been asked to dumb down their dancing like crazy so that they don't show up the lead actors.

Ok, so the dancing in these movies always sucks (with a few notable exceptions, like Born Romantic which has really appropriate skill levels for each of the characters - I have also heard the dancing in You Got Served is supposed to be really good), but a lot of you don't care about that. So, beyond that what are my issues?

Well, as you may know from watching musicals, even good musicals, some story is often sacrificed for the performance sequences. But the weaker story in a good musical is always enhanced in the performance sequences. In some, it is even progresses during the sequences (like Chicago), but it always allows something to build, whether it be the emotional state of the character, or the connection between two or more characters. But what happens when you have a musical with extremely weak musical numbers? The story falls apart. And, perhaps because they are constructed by sub-par writers and directors, these weaker musicals seem always to include ridiculous dialog and horrendous acting to boot.

Don't believe me that they are so bad? Non-dance musicals have enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, but I dare you to try to find a good dance movie after the mid 80s (even mid 80s is pushing it.)

So you want an example...

As a salsa instructor that specializes in Rueda de Casino, I hear about Dance With Me (1998) all the time. Rueda de Casino can be seen in one club scene, and there is other salsa throughout the movie. So many people tell my husband and I how much they love that movie when they learn what we do. But why? Honestly, could the movie have been much worse? Interesting that the casting director didn't think they could choose two dancers for the lead role, but did choose two singers! Actually both have some dancing experience, but Vanessa Williams is just not that strong in that department (though her big flaw is really her overacting), and worse is Chayanne who, though he has many fans of his salsa dancing as well as his singing, has a very informal style, and we are supposed to believe that he can hack it in ballroom competitions. Let me drill it into all of your heads out there right now... SALSA AND BALLROOM ARE VERY VERY DIFFERENT KINDS OF DANCE! They are as different as swing and polka, if not more. So it's completely inconceivable that a salsa dancer (who has no formal training, even in salsa) could be thrown into a ballroom competition and succeed without VAST amounts of training in this completely new style of dance.

Ok, you say, so the dance in the movie wasn't that great, but it's just a movie! And it was kinda cute, right? Yeah, ok, if a good movie to you doesn't have to have any kind of real quality of dialog, acting, structure, and repeats the same formula as scores of other sappy flicks, then you might like Dance With Me, Havana Nights, and while you're at it, watch Shall We Dance. While, on the other hand, if you feel the need for something a bit of substance, enjoy the spectacle of cinema and performance, and want stuff you haven't seen before, try Born Romantic, Strictly Ballroom, and old movie musicals like Top Hat, and Singing in the Rain.

Will Take the Lead break away from the current pack of crappy dance movies? Maybe. But, like I said, it has the added problem of also belonging to the "inspiring teacher movie" club too. And I haven't seen a good offering from that group in a long, long time.

Back to the full blog...


Elisabeth said...

I don't think this movie has any idea what genre it belongs to. I just got done watching another version of the trailer, which makes it look like a teen romantic (dance) comedy with Antonio Banderas in the background.

Inspiring Teacher, Romantic Comedy, Teen, Dance Competition... boy! How many different sub genres can one movie handle? I wonder if there is a Hitchcock-style spy subplot too.

Rahim Rahman said...
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Rahim Rahman said...

What about Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing & Charm School? Check out the trailer and seems like the movie has a good amount of great actors & actresses.

Cast: Robert Carlyle, Marisa Tomei, Mary Steenburgen, Sean Astin, Donnie Wahlberg, David Paymer, Camryn Manheim, Adam Arkin, Sonia Braga, Elden Henson, Ernie Hudson, Miguel Sandoval, Danny DeVito, John Goodman

This movie is coming to Chez Artiste and Landmark theater in Boulder April 7th, 2006.

Elisabeth said...

Yeah, I hadn't watched the preview till now, but I have been wanting to see it. Preview looks fun. Can't speak for the dancing specifically, since the preview was so heavily edited, it makes me think they are covering up for bad dancing. I must say that the long list of celeb actors makes me a little wary of it. How good can the dancing be when it's so obvious how important it was to the filmmakers to get "real" actors? Obviously the acting and the names are more important to the filmmakers than the quality of the dance performances.

Gosh, I hope if my day ever comes to make my dance movie, that I will have a decent script. I would hate to be the one to try to make the great dance movie (because I know what good dancing looks like, and I know how to show it off) and finally fail because of the script.

Kenasam said...

I agree with everything you wrote. As a competitive ballroom dancer, I eagerly went to see "Dance With Me" and also "Shall We Dance," only to be disappointed both times. The story lines were weak and even ludicrous. And due to heavy editing, I could not tell if any of the main stars could actually dance well "ballroom style." However, it was fun for me to see actual champion ballroom stars in the background. Now THEY knew what they were doing!


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