Tuesday, 7 November 2006

Step Up (2006)

This was merely the prelude to the bloodbath that followed in the wake of The Bride

Behind this dance movie is a director who used to be a dance choreographer for Bring It On, a writer who wrote Save The Last Dance, and a director of cinematography who shot Fame. Step Up has a pedigree that should easily make up for the shortcomings of Anne Fletcher’s first feature attempt – not hat it is easy to turn out a dismal product, because the dance genre pretty much writes its scripts from a very simple formula: boy meets girl, boy and girl teach each other to dance, boy and girl triumph against other snobbish competitors or against the system. The only point of departure one can make is having a dance teacher and student(s) variation instead of the boy meets girl scenario, but that’s as far as one can make changes in the very standard genre of dance films.

As befitting the first-time director, Step Up has a very vanilla plot: boy Tyler Gage (Channing Tatum, former underwear model and co-star in She’s The Man) is a teenage delinquent growing up on the wrong side of town with his homies (i.e. he’s poor and talks and moves like an African American), stealing cars and driving girls wild with his hot moves at dance halls. Girl is Nora Clark, an ambitious student in the dance programme for the local school of fine arts. Middle class and a perfectionist to a fault, the girl has no tolerance for modern or urban dance but wants to get a contract with a professional dance company with her graduation performance piece.

Needless to say, the couple are brought together rather conveniently when Tyler is caught breaking into the school and vandalising its property, and sentence to community service as a janitor at the fine arts college. Since we’re in a dance film where Channing Tatum is the male lead, Nora’s training partner needs to suffer an injury that leaves her stranded, with all the male dancers in the school lacking the skills to be her replacement partner, and persuading the principal to reassign Taylor to her – thus opening the way for Tatum and Nora to get together, bicker, grudgingly respect each other’s dance traditions and become close personal friends and maybe lovers.

There’s only a few ways to evaluate any dance film: On the plus side, the choreography, the chemistry between the leads, and the amount of skin and/or hot moves the leads show off. On the minus side, the amount of improbable plot twists and focus on non-essential side stories. Already from the previous paragraph, you would notice a few improbabilities, such as urban dancing Taylor being a natural for the gruelling and physically demanding routines of classical dance. That’s followed by the idea that his funky style of dance is actually interesting, fresh, and compelling enough for Nora’s dance routine to be completely redesigned around it – something that is topped off by the fact that the fine arts college appears to be a very progressive institution complete with hip-hop composers and mixers, but turns out Nora, the ultimate ultraconservative dance student.

Storywise, Anne Fletcher and her writing team have created a dance movie that isn’t completely about the dance floor, choosing to concentrate on several subplots like Nora’s classmates in the fine arts college and their struggle to carve out a little recognition in time for their graduation as well. I had no trouble with this as Nora’s classmates do play an important role in her graduation piece, but the portions that dealt with Taylor’s poverty background and his homies didn’t feel they really belonged to the same movie. Similarly, the class differences between Nora and Taylor are clumsily and perfunctorily raised and half-heartedly dropped just as quickly.

Luckily, the choreography for Step Up is pleasing to the eye, and manages to suggest a certain chemistry that Channing Tatum and Janna Dewan had a little trouble emoting outside the dance sequences. Pity Channing Tatum’s physique was covered, burqa-like, in horribly baggy gansta-wannabe street wear and coveralls, while Dewan isn’t exactly a sex bomb. Step Up may not be Flashdance, but it’s tolerable and somewhat entertaining, even if it does not go far enough.

First published at incinemas on 9 November 2006

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