Killer bodies, spectacular dancing and glimpses of subcultures — these have remained the essential ingredients of dance movies down the years.
Well, yeah, you could tell by the way he used his walk in Saturday Night Fever that Tony Manero aka John Travolta would relocate disco dancing from 1970s subculture into mainstream mania.
Today, Manero’s tale is remembered for the dancing and the music — the Bee Gees soundtrack going on to become the only disco album to win Grammy’s album of the year, apart from turning platinum 15 times over. But also mirrored in the film’s disco ball were the fractured, dead-end lives of a group of Brooklyn youths, whose only escape was the weekend excitement of the dance floor, where they put on the flashy clothes and the flashy moves.
The film had energy and edge. I remember how my uncle, visiting from the States, was shocked that we youngsters were off to see the film — till he realised what was on offer here was the edited variety; famously, the R-rated version had scandalised U.S. cinema-going audiences with its raw, often ugly violence.
Most dance movies today are variants of Saturday Night lite that keep the essential ingredients of beautiful actor-dancers; dance offering disaffected youth a way out of hopeless situations; a boy-meets-girl story across different social classes; a great dance finale; and peeks into specific dance subcultures.
Dance films remain popular — currently we have the fourth edition of the Step Up franchise bopping in our theatres. But while Step Up 4: Miami Heat might try for relevance with a socio-political plot thread, really, the movie is only an excuse to watch young people with killer bodies do some spectacular dancing.
And, indeed, why not?
There’s obviously an audience for the stuff, considering how some modern dance films have practically become mini-franchises. The Step Up saga that started in 2006 with Channing Tatum is going strong, as is Street Dance; not forgetting sequels such as Honey 2 or Save the Last Dance 2. Some have gone the postmodern route of mixing up different dance forms: Street Dance 2 lets street synthesise with salsa.
Watching Step Up 3-D was, oddly enough, a small revelation: 3D, for once, seemed to have a purpose beyond having pointy things flung at the audience. Instead, here, it creates a nice spatial platform in which to locate the dance.
Director Wim Wenders said he finally made Pina — about legendary dancer/choreographer Pina Bausch — only because of the re-invention of 3D in cinemas. He felt this finally gave him a tool to capture her genius on celluloid in a way that did her justice.
The richly layered visual impact of dance does allow it to be used as metaphor. Clever directors have mined this potential to create films that may be centred on dance but whose actual purpose goes way beyond cheering on the gymnastic moves and grace of the dancers.
This intent can be comic, as with British films The Full Monty and Billy Elliot, and Baz Lurmann’s bubbly Strictly Ballroom. But all chronicle, in different ways, the unexpected issues resulting from men undertaking some form of dance as a career move. Or the intent can be dramatic, as in Black Swan, which won Natalie Portman her Oscar, and owed a big nod to Italian dance-horror film Suspiria.
Remakes or Hollywood retellings of the tale do not always work. The Japanese film Shall We Dance (1996) about ballroom dancing was remade in Hollywood starring Richard Gere — with its original title intact but poignant charm missing.
Dance as a forbidden pleasure and an expression of youthful angst has long found a receptive audience, whether in Footloose — the 1984 film was recently remade — Dirty Dancing or Flashdance. Funnily enough, actors such as Footloose’s Kevin Bacon who have gone on to stardom are the exception — many of the dance films’ youthful actors, despite the amazing abs, are quickly forgotten.
It’s not just in dance films, we instinctively respond to dance placed as a memorable visual note in “regular” films. Travolta never quite captured the Tony Manero edge again, not until he reappeared in Pulp Fiction twisting with grace charm and irony alongside Uma Thurman.
We cheered Al Pacino dancing the tango in Scent of a Woman as well as Buzz Lightyear shaking a leg in Toy Story 3— a small step for choreographers but a giant leap for animated astronauts; or the tap dance number in The Artist. My own theory is that the latter’s overwhelming success at the awards was a result of its feel-good resonances with the likes of Gene Kelly Singin’ in the Rain.
British journalist Nik Cohn’s Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night — the title of his 1976 New York Magazine article that was the basis of Saturday Night Fever’s plot and characters — was eventually out-ed as a work of fiction rather than reportage. What’s real, however, is the cinematic and cultural dance revolution sparked by the film, here to stay in its changing forms.