Total Recall

Total Recall: It's a Dance Dance Revolution

Tap your toes to Dirty Dancing, Footloose, and Save the Last Dance.

by | February 13, 2008 | Comments

This Friday marks the arrival of
Step Up 2 the
Streets
, the
Briana Evigan-led
sequel to 2006’s teen dancing drama
Step Up
. Aside from
continuing the Evigan family tradition (remember papa Greg in B.J. and the
Bear
?), Step Up 2 the Streets adds another chapter to the long
history of actors hoofin’ it in major motion pictures. Although it’s a genre
critics haven’t always been kind to — the original Step Up, for instance,
only netted an anemic 21 percent on the Tomatometer — audiences have been
historically dismissive of all the critical contempt, pushing dozens of
fancy-footed extravaganzas to the upper reaches of the box-office charts.

For this week’s Total Recall, we’ll be taking a look back
at three movies that used their stars’ nimble moves as the engine driving the
plot. We can’t possibly come anywhere near covering the genre as a whole —
actors have been dancing on the silver screen for about as long as there’s
been
a silver screen — so in the interest of brevity, we’ll be focusing on a
handful of the films that helped resuscitate dancing at a theater near you after
1981. (Why 1981? Because that was the year that
Steve
Guttenberg
,
Bruce Jenner
, the Village People, and
Nancy
Walker
drove a dagger through the film musical’s heart with
Can’t Stop the
Music
. It’s a film worthy of its own feature…but we digress.)

For all their crimes against dancing on film (and film in
general), the makers of Can’t Stop the Music were essentially right — you
can’t stop the music, and in just three short years, a young actor by the
name of Kevin
Bacon
went out and proved it by toplining a little movie called
Footloose

(56 percent). He didn’t do it alone, of course — he had a little help from a
supporting cast that included
Lori Singer,
Dianne Wiest,
and a wonderfully over the top
John Lithgow,
not to mention new music from Sammy Hagar, Deneice Williams, and ’80s soundtrack
king Kenny Loggins — but it was Bacon’s footwork and spiky ’80s hair that kept
kids flocking to their neighborhood megaplexes in 1984.

The plot was nothing more than the standard "rebel boy
dances his way to the top" arc that pretty much every dance film follows —
something critics everywhere noticed as they turned up their noses at
Footloose
. Screenwriter
Dean Pitchford
(who also co-wrote the soundtrack) knew something the critics didn’t, however:
with MTV invading suburban homes, kids across America were hungry for music
videos, and a movie that offered what was essentially a 107-minute video with
short breaks for dialogue would do very, very well for itself. Pitchford wasn’t
able to follow up his Footloose success with further films — 1989’s
Sing
went largely unheard (har!) — but as we’ll soon see, other filmmakers
would be only too happy to pick up where he left off.
 



 

Filmmakers such as director
Emile Ardolino,
who would, just a matter of months after Footloose finally faded from the
national consciousness, take a script by
Eleanor
Bergstein
and use it to create the cultural capstone known as
Dirty Dancing
.

It’s a little hard to explain if you weren’t there when it
happened, but just trust us — Dirty Dancing was H-U-G-E huge in
1987. The story arc is the same as ever, of course; the screenplay is supposed
to be based on Bergstein’s childhood, but that doesn’t change the fact that you
know exactly what’s going to happen at every 15-minute increment from the time
the opening credits scroll. Ardolino’s genius lay in combining a
’60s-fetishizing soundtrack with
Patrick Swayze‘s
lithe sex appeal. (This is not intended to be an insult to Jennifer Grey — but
come on. The number of guys who willingly see these movies is small, to say the
least.)

Critics were less than impressed with Dirty Dancing,
giving it a 67 percent on the Tomatometer (Rob Humanick scoffed, "An animated
rendering of its characters is virtually the only thing preventing the formulaic
Dirty Dancing from being another one of Disney’s crappy romances"), but
the movie hit its crucial demographic like a comet, spawning a live show, two
soundtrack albums, a short-lived television spinoff, and even a very belated,
tangentially related sequel. (What, you thought we forgot about
Dirty Dancing: Havana
Nights
?)
 



 

It may have been a little too successful, in fact;
the dance mini-revival sparked by Footloose lay dormant for awhile after
Dirty Dancing came and went.  The type of feel-good pop music that
dominated the dance movies of the ’80s was decidedly out of vogue during the
first half of the ’90s — just try and imagine a dance flick powered by a
soundtrack including new music from Nirvana and Pavement — and mainstream
filmmakers hadn’t yet hipped themselves to the market muscle behind modern R&B.
That all changed as the ’90s waned, however; by 2001, dance movies were becoming
a semi-regular fixture at theaters, and even Columbia University-bound
Julia Stiles
wanted in on the action.

We’re talking, of course, about
Save the Last
Dance
, the Stiles/Sean
Patrick Thomas
-led drama that, while inarguably far from a distinguished
film, is fairly emblematic of recent dance movies in general. It’s a new
century, but the basic plot remains unchanged: There are tracks, our young
lovers are from opposite sides, and only the power of dance shall convince the
world that their feelings must prevail. The crucial difference here is the
soundtrack — it’s utterly bereft of Kenny Loggins or Eric Carmen, who have been
replaced by Snoop Dogg, Pink, and Ice Cube.

Critics, of course, remained unmoved — Tim Cogshell
dismissed Dance as "a tepid movie with a few decent dance sequences and a
lot of frustrating sexual tension," placing him squarely in line with the
scribes who left the film with a 49 percent Tomatometer — but audiences, as
ever, didn’t care, sending Save the Last Dance to nearly $100 million in
theatrical receipts.
 



 

The moral of the story, when you get right down to it, is
that people like to watch other people dancing on the big screen, no matter how
many stuffed shirts tell them they shouldn’t. It’s a lesson Briana Evigan would
do well to remember this weekend as the inevitably negative reviews come rolling
in — if, that is, the just-as-inevitably healthy bottom line doesn’t help soothe
the sting first. Our advice for Briana? Unplug the phone, kick back on the
couch, and unwind in front of a dance film marathon that includes
Saturday Night
Fever
(97 percent),
Flashdance
(31
percent), and, of course,
You Got Served

(17 percent).

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