BREAKIN' Down Dance Films with Phil and Janani: Epic Finale
In honor of this month's Shake It Off dance movies series, two Hammer staff members decided to write a blog post (that very quickly turned into a three-parter) about their favorite dance movies, and some guilty pleasures.
Janani Subramanian: Phil! We’re back. We need to tell everyone that we spent the past hour dissecting Taylor Swift’s new single which is definitely dance-tangential since she "dances" sometimes. The conclusion we reached is that it’s not good. In fact, it’s very very bad and maybe made our lives worse
Phil Leers: There’s no question. Let’s please never talk about it again. Instead, can we talk about the fact that Step Up and Stomp the Yard were on cable SIMULTANEOUSLY last Friday and I flipped between the two so effortlessly it was as if they had melded into one beautiful film? It was one of the best nights of my life.
JS: How did you decide when to switch between them? Scene by scene basis?
PL: It was divine intervention. When one was going to commercial break, the other was just coming back. I barely felt like I missed anything. God herself was guiding my clicker hand that night.
JS: That’s really beautiful, and from what you’ve told me, you truly appreciated the breadth and depth of Channing Tatum’s talents based on your virgin viewing of STEP UP.
PL: I really did. Seeing him at a time before he was a household name, it’s so clear that he’s going to be a star. I couldn’t take my eyes off him when he was dancing. I don’t know what it is, or maybe I do: it doesn’t seem like someone as big and dense (in both senses of the word) should be able to move like that. He’s mesmerizing. And the romance between him and Jenna Dewan is so real.
JS: Would you call him…..magic?
PL: I sure would, Janani.
JS: I’m happy to hear that because the title of one of my favorite dance franchises involves deeming him Magic, which ties back to our discussion of favorite titles which brings us to our actual blog post.
Here we go y’all:
Category 7: Best non-dance scene
JS: I had a hard time with this one because I had to think about the "plots" of some of my beloved films and that’s when we start skating on some thin ice in terms of quality (see Honey’s shit-show of a financial plan from previous post). That said, non-dance scenes are obviously important ways of linking and prompting dance sequences, and you can tell that screenwriters occasionally put some thought into making these a) totally outrageous b) crucial to character development c) none of the above or d) all of the above. Center Stage, about ballet dancers competing to join the American Ballet Company, is near and dear to my heart for many reasons, and one of them is that the characters REALLY STRUGGLE with acting because they are dancers, not actors. You can just tell that everyone is trying REALLY HARD to say words and make facial expressions and I just want to give everyone a hug and say, "YOU GUYS, A for effort." I also love any scene where Peter Gallagher and his Eyebrows do stuff (PG and his Es play the Director of the ballet company). We watch these fine folks struggle in the plot with their various issues (one can’t really dance ballet, one has an eating disorder, one’s a jackass, one’s Zoe Saldana who is wondering why she’s acting alongside non-actors) but also struggle on a meta-level with their lack of obvious acting talent (I’m sorry, but not really sorry, as the kids say). Our protagonist Jody’s body has "underdeveloped" turnout and bad feet (rude) so theoretically she’s not made for dance, but she says FUCK THAT and still tries anyways. Near the end of the film, after the final tryouts to join the company, Jody walks into the room where the Peter Gallagher and his Eyebrows are waiting to tell her their decision.
But she doesn’t even let them! She turns the tables and says, "guess what guys, I don’t want to be in your stinking ballet company! I’m going to be a principal dancer in the jackass dancer’s new company because he values my imperfect style! Oh HO and I’m going to date the nice guy who’s mooned over me the whole film! I make good choices!"
Despite the bad acting, I still love this scene because it’s so damn satisfying. How many of us have imposter syndrome about not being good at things? How many of us actually get to say, eh, fuck it, I don’t even care and I’m going to to do what I want? Jody Sawyer in Center Stage, for one. Side note: there aren’t really non-dance scenes of Center Stage on YouTube because of copyright rules, but someone uploaded the entire film as an innovative, copyright-dodging work of video art. Check out the background and the slightly sped up voices for a whole new way to experience this classic motion picture:
PL: So, you went with a scene that is b) crucial to character development. I chose one that is a) totally outrageous. Like, Jem-style, truly, truly, truly outrageous. First, though I have to make a confession. In our first post, I admitted to never having seen Footloose (1984), but I neglected to mention that I HAVE seen Footloose (2011). It’s not something I’m proud of, and it’s something I have to live with every day of my life. I have a good friend, Adam Nayman, who is an amazing film writer and critic in Toronto, who writes for Cinema Scope and The Ringer, and reputable outlets like that. His taste for films is as finely honed as a sommelier’s, but a sommelier who has a real appreciation for two-buck Chuck and Carlo Rossi. He and I, along with the rest of the ragtag bunch that made up our graduate school cohort at the University of Toronto, "curated" a weekly screening of shitty movies, which we would drink through and talk over. When I last visited Adam, we were sitting on his couch channel-surfing late one night, and came upon Footloose (2011). The hair stood up on the back of my neck. This, the voice in my head told me, this is it. I don’t remember if there was any discussion between Adam and I, or if we tacitly agreed to put ourselves through it, but I think we clasped hands like Thelma and Louise and drove our car over the cliff that is this movie.
I don’t remember much of the dancing in the film (aside from the recreation of the iconic angry warehouse dance scene), or really anything else, though this was my introduction to that foremost denizen of the garbage cinema, Julianne Hough. What has remained with me from this film is the scene where a group of teenagers—living in a town where, because a group of teens died in a car accident, dancing is illegal—engage in what we are led to understand is a rather common pastime in this town, a figure-eight schoolbus race. Maybe you haven’t heard of a figure-eight schoolbus race, so let me explain: the teens choose from one of four schoolbuses—a zombie bus, a hunting bus, the Burnin' Hell bus, and the Fun Zone bus—which they then "race" by slamming them into one another at top speed, a la Death Race. This particular race—a stand in, i understand, for the game of tractor chicken in the original—results in all four of the buses being in a crash and/or on fire. I’m not sure exactly who wins, or what they win, or why. I do know that it’s odd that a town would ban dancing but allow teens to smash schoolbuses into each other. If I ran that town, I would have it the other way around! Anyway, it’s certainly not a dance scene, and it’s certainly better than every other scene in that movie.
Category 8: Best Celebrity Cameo
PL: Janani already wrote at length about the immortal Missy Elliott’s incredible appearance in the execrable Honey, so I wanted to look elsewhere. But I’m not straying far. I’m going with Missy’s contemporary and sometime collaborator (Hit Em Wit Da Hee!) Lil’ Kim, for her show-stealing appearance in You Got Served. Lil’ Kim doesn’t show up until the end of the movie, but plays in integral role in the climax (that’s not even a double entendre; get your mind out of the gutter). See, the reward for winning the Big Bounce, the breakdance competition that the entire film leads up to, is a chance to perform in Lil’ Kim’s new video (unlike Missy’s song for Honey, which plays over the closing credits, the Lil’ Kim video doesn’t really happen). Of course, then, she shows up to announce the winning crew, wearing a string bikini top and track pants, two sweatbands on one of her wrists, and a giant gold chain that reads LILKIM. An iconic look. But when it turns out that the good guy crew and the bad guy crew have tied, all hell breaks loose. The crews are ready to come to blows when Mr. Rad, played by Steve Harvey (yes, this movie is full of amazing talent!), implores "Lil’ Miss Kim" to let the crews battle it out, as they would do in the STREETS. The look that comes across Lil’ Kim’s face when she hears that word… well, it could melt butter. She announces to the crowd, which is super angry about the tie, that they’ve decided to take it to the streets, which makes them super happy. Then, privately, she walks up to David (Marques Houston), and, in a stunning display of favoritism that never gets mentioned, tells him, "Y’all tear this mother up. Get grimy and dirty, straight street." David, somehow taking this all in stride, is smoother than hell, asking her, "How street you want us to get?" To which Lil’ Kim responds, "You know how I like it baby, straight hood." Let me tell you, folks, it really seems like these two are about to bone in front of everyone. They don’t, but they kinda do. Watch the video and judge for yourself. But no ties here: Lil’ Kim is the champ.
JS: So I literally can’t understand your summary of the school bus situation in Footloose (2011) because it sounds bananas and violent. But I do have a really good time trying to pronounce Julianne Hough’s last name, which at this point I just say like I’m having a mouth + stomach seizure. I say it a bit like the "Rick Ross grunt," inspired in part by this Aziz Ansari tweet. I just name-dropped two additional celebrities which is apt considering our category.
Just like the deep-cut Twitter moment I mention above, I’m going deep with celebrity cameos. Does everyone remember the third Bring It On film, Bring It On: All or Nothing (straight to DVD for those keeping score)? I’m sure you all do because Her Majesty SOLANGE PIAGET KNOWLES-FERGUSON (née KNOWLES-SMITH) is in it as well as not-royalty Hayden Panettiere. I honestly don’t remember the details of this installment of the franchise because I watched it in a fever dream of a Bring It On marathon while folding laundry and considering the rapidly decreasing athletic abilities of my aging body. But any-hoo, I find this Wikipedia (lest you think we don’t research these posts!) entry about the film to be both hilarious and probably true: "This film, which is the second sequel to Bring It On, has a tenuous link to its predecessors, featuring only a similar plot of competing cheerleading teams that have to try something different in order to win. There are no recurring cast members or canonical references to the preceding films" (emphasis mine). No world building in this franchise, friends!
But the cameo is not Solange, since she’s actually Hayden’s main cheerleading rival in the story. Hayden moves to Crenshaw Heights from Pacific Vista when she becomes poor, which, as you can guess from the names of these made up L.A. neighborhoods, sets forth a multitude of racial and class issues that our poor straight-to-DVD dance-franchise film isn’t equipped to handle. Nonetheless, Her Majesty Solange majestically does stuff, including ultimately inviting Hayden onto the cheerleading team after she proves herself worthy. Some stuff happens, rivalries form and unform, privileged kids act privileged, yada yada… but the most important plot point and best cameo in recent dance history happens—our second Her Majesty ROBYN RIHANNA FENTY announces a competition (I’m seeing a theme here) where the winners get to be in her music video and win computers or some other boring stuff. Things get a bit racially weird in the final competition when the Crenshaw Heights team decides to "krump" on stage at Hayden’s suggestion, but everything is ok because the Crenshaw team wins and Rihanna gets to school this awful young lady on her offensive use of the word "ghetto." Here’s where things get both awesome and odd—the film ends with a "made for the film" music video for Pon de Replay. But there’s ALREADY a music video for Pon de Replay, guys! I have to map this out:
Can two videos of a great Rihanna song exist at the same time, in the same world? Which one is better? There’s a very clear answer to this (see above re: human bicycle), but the fact that Ri-Ri gave us the opportunity to even ponder this question means that her cameo was a gift to the world.
PL: Goddamn. That is a deep cut, but finding Rihanna in Bring It On: All or Nothing is like finding a Van Gogh at the Salvation Army. You win this round.
Category 9: Best Character
PL: So many memorable characters to choose from! First, I want to shout out Meagan Good—not a character, but an actress who has appeared in three movies on our list, despite not being (as far as I can tell) a dancer. She graduates from the main love interest’s crazy best friend Beautifull (with two L’s) in You Got Served, to Lil Bow Wow’s love interest in Roll Bounce, to the object of everyone’s affection in Stomp the Yard. Meagan, dance movies wouldn’t be what they are without you. Thank you for your service.
My favorite non-dancing character is probably Elgin’s and Liyah’s grandma, Grandma (Esther Scott). As the grandma, she’s about what you’d expect: she’s wise, she’s tired, she’s not taking any guff. She’s also the best. Just watch her in this scene, chewing on alllll the scenery with every line.
The mother/father/grandparent characters in dance movies are always crucial, usually as either an opposing force who needs to be won over (by dance), or as a voice of reason who offers much needed perspective (on dance). Grandma is my favorite. Her delivery in this scene is perfect, running the gamut from loving and supportive—"If it ain’t my future doctor!"—and getting increasingly stern and concerned (but also loving). The way she tells her grandson "Sit your ass down," and then calls him by his full name, "Elgin Barrett Eugene SMITH THE THIRD!" It’s bravura movie grandma shit. Then she cuts the tension with a "feet feel so swollen it’s like walkin’ on water." Always leave 'em laughing, Grandma. Also, that Winnie the Pooh tee is iconic.
But you can’t have a best character who can’t dance (well, Grandma does have her bingo dance—that’s so Grandma!—but that’s not cutting muster in this competition). My award for Best Character, then, is Moose (Adam Sevani), from Step Up 2: The Streets and Step Up 3D. And Step Up Revolution. And Step Up All In. That’s right, Moose is the thread that ties together the world’s greatest quadrilogy of sequels. But this isn’t just a lifetime achievement award (Adam Sevani was born in 1992, which seems a little young for that)—I love Moose’s character arc. He starts out as the goofy best friend, the lighting design student who sits down uninvited at the main character’s table at lunch, breaks down her defenses, gets her to think this performing arts school may not be so bad after all. They become friends—she a dancer, he a lighting designer, never the twain to meet or whatever. Until the twain DOES meet, and meets hard, when she mocks him for his ringtone, and he breaks into dance on a nearby staircase. It’s a revelation:
It’s nice to be surprised by a dance in a dance movie. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one taken by his performance, because he’s back as a main character in Step Up 3D, where he gets a cute girlfriend to do a cute New York City (Burbank lot) couples dance. Come on, watch this:
My favorite thing for a man to be, in movies as in life, is sweet. I find it sad that as a society we treat sweetness as a unmanly characteristic. If I knew people referred me as a sweet man, I could die happy (and if not, I will die bitter and angry). One of the things that draws me to dance movies are all of the sweet guys in them. Channing Tatum is sweet in Step Up. Omarion is sweet in You Got Served. Nick Cannon is sweet in Drumline. Moose is the sweetest of them all—he reminds me of a young Shia LaBeouf, before whatever happened to him happened to him, but with Bruno Mars's dance moves, and ex-NHL goaltender Johan Hedberg’s nickname. He’s my best character.
JS: Sweet! You are absolutely correct about sweetness being an undervalued quality in both life and film characters. I find it odd that you’d evoke Shia Leboof (sp?) in any form, but that aside, the fact that Moose actually lasts through multiple iterations of the franchise means he’s a winner.
My choice is also based on sweetness and kindness and early adulthood crush-ness. You guessed it, Sean Patrick Thomas’s character in Save the Last Dance wins for me. He’s just so GOOD in that film. Let’s do a listicle:
He takes pity on Julia Stiles while dancing with her at club STEPPS. He has a charitable heart that is moved by her poor skills. He has excess dance skills that he’s willing to share with her. Whether that’s love or not, I don’t know, but I do know that it means that he’s a nice person.
He takes Stiles to see the Joffrey Ballet because he knows that she loves ballet. That shit’s expensive, and Derek has to save his money to go to Georgetown—for undergrad and medical school!!!!! But he just has to help whatshername confront her demons blabbity blah blah and I guess he also has a crush on her and is trying to woo her (whatever). A great date that’s also an invitation to really evaluate your dreams and aspirations? Winning!
He’s actually a good dancer and wants to be a doctor. Those aren’t necessarily related but they are two cool things that exist in the same character.
He’s a good brother to his sister Chenile (luminous Kerry Washington; not sure why she’s named after a fabric) and a good friend to bad dude Malakai, despite Malakai’s insistence on involving Derek in some bad-dude stuff. Granted, Derek chooses to attend Stiles's Julliard audition (previously BLASTED apart by Phil) instead of helping Malakai with a drive-by shooting, but that was probably for the best.
He wears this scarf/coat combo, and he wears it so well:
PL: You’re so predictable, Janani. You’re also right about SPT’s generational scarf-wearing talent. In the Director’s Cut version of the film, they really explore the subplot of Derek’s battle with his scarves as they creep up his neck, slowly trying to consume him completely, culminating in this, yes, iconic look:
Category 10: Best Dance Scene
PL: Here we are. The granddaddy of them all. This is like the Best Picture Oscar, or the "Most Likely to Succeed" yearbook superlative. I put a lot of thought into this category. A lot. More than I probably should have. I watched dozens of YouTube clips, weighed a range of different variables, and learned some things about myself in the process.
I also developed some guidelines for judging a dance scene, which are necessary for hacking through the morass of dance scenarios that we’ve concerned ourselves with. Here are a few of the things that loomed largest in my decision-making process.
The fewer dancers, the better. Right off the bat, this is a tough one, because it pretty much disqualifies every dance scene from You Got Served, which, in my extremely qualified opinion, features the best choreography of any of these movies. Make no mistake, dance crews are wonderful, and totally central to the genre. Group dance scenes are full of kinetic energy, they require complicated direction, and they can accomplish things that no one dancer could do alone. But they also make it hard to focus on individual dancers, and they tend to overwhelm with spectacle rather than emotional heft. The intimacy of a solo dance, or a one-on-one battle, or a couple’s routine simply allows for more nuance. Which brings us to number 2...
The dance needs to serve a dramatic function. This one should probably be self-evident. They’re called dance movies, so it holds that the dance should propel the story forward, tell us things about the characters that they can’t put into words. We’ve spent a lot of time joking about the lame plotting and awkward dialogue in these films, but there is something exciting and elegant and affecting about their ability to communicate meaning and tension through dance. Which brings us to number 3...
The dance needs conflict. There’s a reason all these movies place such an emphasis on battles: how else are we to judge a dance if there’s nothing to measure it against? It can serve so many purposes, humbling the cocky (like Sara’s first experience at STEPPS in Save the Last Dance), convincing the skeptical (like the first time Tyler successfully lifts Nora in Step Up), or vanquishing the douchey (like the final scene of all these movies). I am a pacifist by nature. Conflict makes me uncomfortable. But there is nothing in the world I love more than one combatant clowning another in a dance battle. What purer form of non-violent resistance could there be? The hero can annihilate a villain without laying a finger on them. Which brings us to number 4...
The dance needs to end with finishing move—the pettier, the better. Because of the tension inherent in any great dance scene, there needs to be a release at the end, and the finishing move is the button that announces "It’s over!" Most commonly, one dancer performs a finishing move, the crowd goes wild and overtakes the floor, and the DJ calls the fight. But we’ve also seen this go wrong. In Drumline, Devon (Nick Cannon) embarrasses his opponent in a drumline battle by playing on the other dude’s drum (ice cold), and receives a snare drum to the temple for his troubles. In Stomp the Yard, the Goon Squad so thoroughly humiliates their rival crew that the crew leader eventually shoots and kills Duron (Chris Brown). Such is the power of a finishing move. These should be as disrespectful as possible without getting you shot. Finally, number 5...
The dance needs to show you something you haven’t seen before. Obviously. No biters allowed. Give me something new or GTFO. Oh! And one last thing…
The song needs to be BANGIN’.
Using those rules as my guideposts, I whittled it down to two. The runner-up is the early dance battle between Tyler (Channing Tatum) and Andie (Briana Evigan) in Step Up 2: The Streets. Let’s just see how it fits within the guidelines I set. Number 1: it’s a mano-a-mano battle, so we’re all good there. Number 2: this dance scene serves a couple of dramatic functions. First, it provides the only through-line connecting the sequel with the original. Andie bumps into Tyler at a club, and he tells her what’s going on with his character (he and Nora are living in New York, and they’re about to go on tour. Good for them!), and we learn that Andie grew up with Tyler. Second, it basically sets the entire plot in motion. Tyler knows that Andie has the opportunity to go to Maryland School for the Arts to study daaance, but doesn’t want to go, so he battles her for it: if he wins, she goes to school. Guess what happens?! Number 3: This is where this scene falls a little short. It’s a head-to-head battle, so there’s some baked-in conflict, and some good-natured ribbing from Tyler ("If you’re scared, just say you’re scared. I get it, I wouldn’t want to battle me if I was a girl."), but these two are too friendly for there to be any bad blood. Number 4: And here’s where it makes up a lot of ground! This dance move has probably my favorite finishing scene: Tyler is up on a riser next to a speaker, jumps onto a trampoline set into the floor, grabs a strategically-placed metal hook protruding from a balcony, snags his collar on the hook, and drops down, leaving his shirt behind. Breathtaking. The crowd surrounds him, the DJ yells, "It’s OVER!" It’s textbook. Number 5: Did you notice me casually drop the fact that this battle takes place in a club with TRAMPOLINES set into the FLOOR? Sure, it’s gimmicky, but what a gimmick! I won’t even try to describe it. Just watch:
Number 6: The song is T-Pain’s "Rude Dude," and it’s kinda corny to me. Sorry, not feeling it.
My actual choice for Best Dance Scene, though, surprised even myself. It’s not the most important scene, or even the most memorable. But to me, it’s the best. It’s DJ’s (Columbus Short) "Walk It Out" dance in Stomp the Yard. Let’s check the tape:
To me, this scene has everything I’m looking for in a dance sequence. It starts out ostensibly as a multi-crew battle, then becomes a head-to-head battle, then becomes a one-man-versus-the-world battle. It is the first real conflict between the two main characters: Grant (Darrin Henson), the bad guy in the movie, acts like a dick to his girlfriend, April (Meagen Good). DJ overhears and tells April she deserves better. Grant tells DJ to get away from his girl, calls him a "bootlicker." So DJ decides to bring Grant down a notch... on the dance floor. These guys hate each other, and this scene is where DJ serves notice to Grant that 1) I’m better than you and 2) I’m coming for your girl. DJ’s entrance is a thing of beauty: he jumps off of a speaker to the middle of the floor, and when the DJ (the disk jockey, not the character) asks what city he represents, he responds "I ain’t reppin’ nothing. Just me." I mean, come on.
Grant goes first, doing some corny b-boy shit, ending with a wack robot thing in DJ’s face. For a moment, DJ looks intimidated and we wonder if he’s going to wilt in the spotlight. HE DOES NOT. "Walk It Out" by DJ Unk (again, different DJ) begins and DJ dances around the circle of dancers surrounding him, confronting each crew in turn and clowning on them using their own city’s steps. I mean, the depth of knowledge about regional dance moves required for DJ to mock St. Louis, and Jamaica, and Chicago, and Atlanta, and Miami… the kid did his research. You get the sense that has appreciation for that which he mocks, which is the foundation for any good satire (which this is). When he finally comes at Grant (the DJ, helpfully: "Wait a minute, is he coming at Grant?"), he’s won over the entire crowd and earned the respect of every other dancer in the room. He dispatches Grant quickly, miming some of Grant’s robot movies and then miming punching Grant in the face a bunch of times. Grant stands there and takes it, and DJ takes his girl—seriously, before the dance is even over, there’s a cutaway to April looking at DJ in a way that no one will ever look at you or me.
So that’s it. That’s my favorite dance. DJ is a charismatic and funny and sweet dancer, winning even while clowning everyone in the room. The song is perfect. The gimmick of our sole hero battling the whole world is clever, and provides the platform for an ingenious performance. The entire plot of the film is boiled down and crystallized in about two minutes of screen time. And the good guy wins.
What do you think, Janani?
JS: Wow, Phil. I’m blown away by your taxonomical (don’t care, it’s a word now) breakdown of what makes a good dance scene, and it gives me a helpful springboard for DISAGREEING with you.
I have also narrowed my choices down to two scenes (and two runners-up—it’s our blog and we do what we want). I’ll use my choices to subtly and elegantly poke some holes in your aforementioned criteria.
In no particular order, one favorite is the opening scene from Step Up Revolution. Full disclosure—I’ve watched only the dance scenes in this film and none of the plot. But we’re only judging dance scenes and I read a plot summary, so I think I’m fine. Here it is:
Why do I love this so? Well, it violates 1, 2, and 3 of Phil’s rules, and I think that is what makes it great. #1: it involves many, many, many dancers since the premise of Step Up Revolution (aka Step Up 4Ever!) is disruptive flash mobs (a little dated by 2012, admittedly); #2: it serves almost no dramatic purpose except "hey this is a dance movie, here’s some dancing!"; and #3: there really is no conflict except that random drivers are upset that traffic is blocked by these dang-nab millennials and their hippity-hop dancing. But the kinetic energy that Phil mentions above regarding dance crews—the MTV-editing, great songs, and multiple bodies in motion—is what makes dance come alive on film specifically. Check out the first shots of the dance scene above—quick cuts of the DJ setting up her dope gear, a crazy zoom of the dancers getting out of cars on Ocean Drive, low angle shot of our dopey Channing-Tatum-knockoff protagonist getting out of his car, cuts to different dancers doing parkour—that kind of intensity is less a choreography of bodies and more a choreography of bodies and editing and sound. The scene gets more and more intense throughout, with the dancers using the cars, their bodies and each other to do some nutty moves, and a tiny subplot of dudes carrying large panes of glass and spray-painting something woven throughout. Also the Coco Frio cart guy has a camcorder stuck to one of his coconuts filming the whole thing, which seems odd but makes you realize that cameras on mobile fruits should be a part of all dance scenes. And then, guys, the cars get in on the action and start dancing, with dancers on top of them, like some kind of Fast and Furious/Step Up fan-fiction wet dream (Step Up 2 Fast? No, that sounds like the beginning of one of those Life Alert commercials. Furiously Stepping Up? Ok, I’ll stop). Like most scenes in any Busby Berkeley joint, the scene doesn’t need to serve a dramatic purpose other than reeling you into the film and doesn’t need any conflict because it is meant to immerse you in spectacle. The scene does however meet requirements 4-6 above: it ends with the glass pane storyline hinted at above coming to fruition—part of the flashmob crew (creatively named THE MOB) has set up a kind of glass monolith tagged with their iconography in the middle of the street—THE MOB is here y’all and they have come to disrupt our stupid, boring everyday lives with some fly moves. It also shows us some pretty ingenious stunts (#5), and the song is really catchy despite being a Travis Barker (blech) song (#6). And my number 1 reason for loving it is that it proves that La La Land COPIED THEIR OPENING NUMBER from the fourth installment of a totally written-off dance movie franchise and Step Up Revolution (aka Step Up: Miami Heat—it actually has 3 names, and I’m not making this up) does it BETTER. Feel free to compare. La La Land was meant to capture some of the joys of the classic movie musical but I’d argue that energy of the Step Up Revolution opening scene does that better. La La Land’s opening made me angry at the dancers for clogging up the freeway, while Step Up’s made me want to put on my jumping stilts and JAM:
Ok, my other choice is very different but actually meets all of Phil’s criteria: the final dance of Black Swan. I love me a ballet movie, but throw in some psychosexual stuff and I’m SOLD. As mentioned previously, BS has a dope villain—the protagonist herself—and in the final scene both SadNataliePortman and EvilNataliePortman dance as Swan Lake’s White Swan and Black Swan, respectively. So there are backup dancers, but all eyes are on Natalie and/or her dancing body-double as she violently and gracefully dances the shit out of both roles (#1). There is conflict (#2) between SadNataliePortman and EvilNataliePortman that is written into the roles of the ballet—the tragic lovely White Swan (yawn) vs. the evil witchy Black Swan (yea!), and the whole scene fulfills the dramatic function (#3) of showing us that NP has given into both sides of herself and, judging from this lovely shot, maybe been possessed by demons. I seriously love this shot because she’s looking at US and we’re like ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh fuck shit is real in the field now.
That shot also supports #5—there is plenty of ballet on film, but no ballet movies which highlight the psychological breakdown (demonic possession?) of the main character on stage while she’s dancing and while she’s dancing the best ballet of her life (and my life, and your life). #6: the music, like all of our friend Tchaichovsky’s jams, is banging, and finally, #4: THAT FINISHING MOVE. ***SPOILERS AHEAD*** Y’all, she stabs Mila Kunis in a fit of competitive rage but she actually stabs herself and then DIES at the end of the ballet, falling to a mattress gracefully with a bleeding wound and whispering "I was perfect." Baby girl, you were. That move is not only baller but also PETTY AS FUCK and a giant middle finger to her mom, the creepo director, petty bitchy ballerinas, and a culture which tells us that ballet dancers have to look and act and dance a certain way. Joke’s on them! I mean, the joke is actually on her because she’s dead, but that’s a helluva a finale friends.
Now for my runners-up, which absolutely break the rules of this dangerous game we’ve decided to play. The first one may be the best dance scene in the history of film, just from its sheer ingenuity. It is absolutely the work of one performer, and while it doesn’t have a narrative purpose (except to get Gene Kelly to lighten up) and little conflict, I have never found anything like it. In every instance I’ve seen this film, the audience starts clapping spontaneously after this scene. I present to you "Make ‘Em Laugh" from the splendiferous Singin' in the Rain:
Second runner-up is from 2017’s Girls Trip, which is worth mentioning for many reasons, but one reason related to this blog: the dance-off fight between Jada Pinkett-Smith, Tiffany Haddish, Queen Latifah, and Regina Hall against some young ladies who should have known better. It’s just delicious fun, and you can only see it in theaters (or via this total illegal video taken in a movie theater ← don’t do this, it’s very bad and illegal). It just delighted me, and I feel that the past 2-3 years have been bereft of good dance-offs and it also ends in a bar brawl. I’ve always wanted to both dance and fight, and this gave me the vicarious pleasure of both.
PL: Just to summarize, in our most important category, you have a tie between two scenes, and your runners-up are from a (admittedly great) non-dance movie from this summer, and a (admittedly great) non-dance movie FROM 19 DAMN 52? I’m outraged, I’m sure our readers (the 0 of them that made it this far) are outraged, and you can bet Lil’ Kim is outraged. There’s really only one way to settle this. I’ll see you... in the streets.
Tags: programs, dance, film