Thursday, 25 September 2014

UNDERRATED: Step Up (2006)

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Step Up (USA, 2006)
Directed by Anne Fletcher
Starring Channing Tatum, Jenna Dewan, Damaine Radcliff, Mario

The surprise commercial success of Save the Last Dance ushered in a wave of films focussed around street dance and hip-hop. Where classic-era Hollywood dance films were dominated by ballroom, ballet and tap dancing, the 2000s gave us film after film in which impressive street or hip-hop choreography came face-to-face with decades-old romantic and dramatic conventions, with varying degrees of success.

 
At the more mainstream end of this wave we have Step Up, the first in a series of five films (to date) which combine predictable plots with often jaw-dropping dancing. But where its sequels increasingly sacrificed narrative for the sake of set-pieces, the film that started it all gets a good balance and is the most focussed of all the series. It's hardly game-changing in its construction, but it is surprisingly heartwarming and comes across as more genuine than you might expect.
 
It's very easy to view dance films as essentially a series of set-pieces held together by a threadbare story. Even in the so-called golden days of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, around ten times the effort seemed to be expended on the dancing than on the events that made them dance in the first place. As I argued in my review of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it is possible to enjoy these films as artistic endeavours rather than narrative ones, but for the less freeform among us, even the best leave us with an unsatisying niggle.
 
The best dance films, in any sub-genre, succeed because they are not really about dancing. The Red Shoes is about the boundary between fantasy and reality, and the tension between creativity and common sense. Black Swan is about the need to embrace one's dark side in striving for artistic perfection, even at the cost of one's sanity. Even Strictly Ballroom, Baz Luhrmann's raucous debut, is less about ballroom dancing than the fight against orthodoxy and how the fear of failure cripples people.
 
Step Up may not boast the richly-layered themes of any of these offerings, nor is it as visually ravishing. But it does belong in the same camp, since its dancing is used to explore ideas and character traits rather than just serve as a distraction. Instead of dazzling you with MTV-style cuts and empty, shallow bombast, the film is an altogether gentler beast, whose moments of posturing are tame and infrequent.
 
Despite not having the visual splendour of Luhrmann, Darren Aronofsky or Powell and Pressburger, Step Up is still a decent-looking film. Michael Seresin has spent much of his career working with Alan Parker, lensing all of his films between Bugsy Malone and Come See The Paradise. You won't find here any of the evocative colour shifts and shadows that he achieved in Angel Heart, but the colour palette is inviting and his use of wide angles is judicious.
 
Much like Charles Walters, director of High Society, Anne Fletcher comes from a background in choreography. There are occasions when we get the impression that the sets have been deliberately designed to be as big and spacious as possible, to allow more room for the dancing and more scope for the camera movements. But while Walters ultimately failed to tell his story in an interesting way, Fletcher has enough grasp of cinematic narrative to hold our attention.
The set-pieces in Step Up are of a very high quality. While less kinetic or feverish than in some of the sequels, there's still an awful lot of physical effort that goes into the various sequences. As a showcase for how exciting dancing can be, the film is on a par with some of the classic Hollywood offerings I mentioned. Channing Tatum's appearance doesn't suggest that he would be a good dancer, but he both looks and feels the part, and his deadpan nature plays into the hands of the role, unlike his later performance in The Eagle.
 
The story of Step Up, by contrast, is incredibly conventional. It's the classic story of two people from completely different backgrounds whose only means to get what they want is to team up. Over the course of the film they swap tips and interests, gradually grow to like and respect each other, and after a brief cooling of their relationship, they decide they really need each other and triumph. This plot is among the most well-worn in film, but it is applied in a somewhat engaging way.
 
Step Up uses its two conflicting styles of music to reflect the flaws of the individual characters. Tyler's laid-back, devil-may-care attitude gives him the freedom to take his dance moves wherever they choose to go, but he lacks the ability to focus which could make him potentially dance for a living. Nora, by contrast, is a prisoner of rigidity, being so tightly bound by the rules and traditions of classical music and dance that she can neither innovate nor stimulate.
 
The relationship between our two main characters is a breaking down of barriers, with both sides learning to respect traits of the other. Tyler not only understands responsibility, but he actively seeks it, eventually commiting to putting on a killer show and making a living. Nora learns to loosen up and have fun, which makes her dancing more natural and appealing. Tatum and Jenna Dewan have good chemistry together, which eventually led to them getting married in 2009.
 
There is also a nice comment in the film about how snobbery and tradition can actually put off the most talented people in a given field. Tyler's natural talent is plain for all to see (except himself), and yet it's hard to imagine him being given a level playing field with the more privileged members of the school. The film does, however, become a little more cartoony in this respect, with Nora's dance partner Brett being very thinly-written.
 
Step Up also deserves credit for maintaining control over its tone. Many films which are melodramatic in nature feel the need to inject some kind of darkness partway through their plots in a desperate bid to be taken seriously. While the film isn't as nuanced as Fame in this regard, the dramatic twist involving the younger boy is handled delicately, so that it compliments the drama rather than pulling us out of it.
 
Step Up is a surprisingly decent dance film, which acquits itself perfectly well as both a physical showcase and a piece of storytelling. Aspects of it are cartoony or melodramatic, and it's hardly the most original or accomplished piece of cinema around. But it is a great deal more agreeable than many would lead us to believe. If only its narrative standards had been maintained for the sequels.

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Apologies for the long gap between reviews on here - I will strive to do better in future.

NEXT REVIEW: Step Up 2 The Streets (2008)

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