Once upon a time, dance movies were a highly respected art form. Now, according to many film buffs, they’re a joke. What happened? Even casual movie-goers know the names of Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Ginger Rogers, but can anyone name any of the stars of the long running Step Up series, now into its fifth film? (And no, Channing Tatum doesn’t count – he was only in the first one and it wasn’t until he put dance (Magic Mike excepted) behind him that he became a star.)
Some might say it’s because these days dance movies all have the same story. Not true. Yes, the latest Step Up film, Step Up: All In is about an outcast driven by personal demons to make a name for himself who gathers together a rag-tag group of skilled dancers from a wide range of backgrounds to form a crack team of underdogs that will enter a massive dance contest where they have no chance whatsoever of winning. And sure, that was also the plot of last year’s Battle of the Year. And 2012’s Streetdance 2 3D. And Step Up 3D. And Step Up 2: The Streets.
But importantly, Step Up: All In does not feature a classically trained dancer who discovers that only street dancing can release the passion inside them. Because if it did then it would have been the same plot as Streetdance 3D. And Make It Happen. And the original Step Up. And Breakin’, aka Breakdance the Movie. It also doesn’t require the cast to use their dance powers to save the local rec center from evil developers, which is fortunate because that was the plot of Step Up: Revolution (aka Step Up 4: Miami Heat) and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.
Rather than being a weakness, these generic plots are – no, really – a major strength of the dance genre. Simplistic plots mean the films don’t need to take up scene after scene explaining what’s going on with the characters lives and motivations. We get it: the main guy wants to win the big contest, everyone else is here to help, that evil guy running the rival crew is clearly the baddie – let’s dance!
Every single commercial Hollywood blockbuster released this year – and every previous year since either the dawn of time or Star Wars – is designed to deliver exciting action sequences to audiences that don’t really care how or why those scenes are happening. The dance movie genre is more honest about this than most, so why is it derided for refusing to lie to the audience about what they’ve come to see? (Especially when it’s being done so well: unlike just about all of those other dance films, first time director Trish Sie knows to not ruin Step Up: All In’s dance sequences with excessive editing. When someone pulls off an impressive move, you actually see them doing the move from start to finish.)
Just because the plots are repetitive, that doesn’t mean the movies have nothing to say. Step Up: All In begins with a montage showing the various members of dance crew “The Mob” auditioning for commercial work in Los Angeles. Stupid costumes, confusing instructions (‘move right, but make it look like you’re moving left’), being openly ogled by the female casting agents, being told the job’s taken before they even get a chance to strut their stuff: it’s a big comedown from the flash mob social justice work The Mob were last seen doing in Step Up: Miami Heat. Guess that’s what happens when the happy ending to your previous film is getting a big contract with Nike.
A franchise of movies based entirely around good-looking people performing unlikely and oddly aggressive dance moves wouldn’t seem to require heavy continuity – or any continuity at all – but following on directly from the last Step Up film gives this one a surprisingly harsh edge. Well, a harsh edge for a movie in which a guy who only does “The Robot” falls in love with an equally robotic girl dancer and all their love is expressed robotically. The last Step Up film was all about making a difference (albeit through flash mobs): this one is about making a living.
Step Up: All In takes a leaf out of Hollywood’s other brilliant yet under-appreciated franchise – the Fast and the Furious films – by bringing back a bunch of actors from the previous films, including Briana Evigan (the midriff-baring Angie from Step Up 2: The Streets) and series regular Adam Sevani as Moose (he’s been in every Step Up film since 2). Almost all of them are shown working crummy menial jobs, which they promptly quit for a chance at Vegas stardom – a chance that, the film repeatedly makes clear, is both slim and unlikely to make a long-term difference anyway.
Silly, packed with clichés and only marginally interested in faithfully representing human behaviour, Step Up: All In still manages to be a surprisingly effective look at creative work in the 21st century. There’s no money, no job security, no safety net, you’re at the mercy of the wealthy and the game is rigged against you. Faced with the pointlessness of servitude during late-period capitalism, the only thing you really have control over is your body: what better way to escape ‘the cage around your heart’ (as one character puts it) that this life imposes, than to dance?
Step Up: All In is in general release from 11 September.