Here is what you need to understand about dance movies: there are rules.
A few of the most important:
1. There must be a (hot) male lead and (hot) female lead, both of whom can dance. Preferably, these leads must have slightly different dance "styles" that will, through the course of 90 minutes, turn into a sweet dance alchemy evidenced in one or more dance finales. These leads are, for better or (usually) worse, white, because obviously white people are solidly B+ dancers/make marketing executives less nervous.
2. There must be a supporting cast of dance characters. This is where the non-white people get to shine. This is also where the people who can really f-ing dance but can't act get to hang out.
3. There must be one or more dead or absent parents.
4. There must be someone who doesn't understand that all one/both of the main characters wants to do is DANCE.
5. There must be a killer soundtrack, filled with a mix of old and new dance classics.
6. There must be at least six dance sequences, with varying degrees of formality, planning, improvisation, costumes, synchronicity. At least one should be in a public space, at least one should be on an actual stage.
7. There must be a vague social commentary nested within the dancing. Dance for freedom, dance against racism, dance to defeat machinations of manipulative white men, dance against capitalism, etc., etc.
8. The dancing must be real. Let me elaborate: the best part of watching dancing is watching bodies move. When directors CGI and slo-mo the shit out of a dance routine, the pleasure we take in what a body can do is lost. I'm fine with fast-cuts, montages, and manipulative sound editing. But the more you let the bodies — not the FX — be the spectacle, the more awesome the dance movie.
The films of the Contemporary Dance Movie Hall of Fame do all these things and do them well: Center Stage, Step Up (the first), the new Footloose (just trust me here), Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights and, obviously, Save the Last Dance. (How She Move breaks rule #1 and is all the better for it.)
Like so many of you, I've seen and loved Step Up. I love early C-Tates, I love his sweatpants, and I love that scene in the club where everyone somehow knows the same dance and he gloriously pops his collar. Apart from the weird subplot involving a gang hit, it's almost a perfect movie. But Step Up 2 The Streets broke rule number 1 (lead male dancer not hot enough) and Step Up 3D flagrantly violated rule number 8. The fact that a movie in which a slurpee came off the screen toward you was a boring slog should tell you what you need to know. It was the Transformers 3 of dance movies: all explosions, no soul.
Now I will submit, for your approval, a new entry in the dance movie canon: Step Up: Revolution, a.k.a. Step Up 4, a.k.a. the biggest surprise of my movie-going summer. The evidence, in brief:
2. The female lead (Kathryn McCormick), who’s apparently somewhat annoying on So You Think You Can Dance, is pretty solid and unannoying. A+ for dancing, B- for acting, A- for beach hair, B+ for sultry looks.
3. The director of photography/cinematographer is named Crash.
4. The cast of characters in "The Mob" (the dance crew) are so one-note and classically awesome. ("The Artist," "The Tech Guy," "The FX Guys," etc).
5. The siiiick DJ is a lady.
6. The dancing set-pieces are breathtaking and unexpected — and all in different ways. In most dance movies — and Step Ups in particular — there's a certain style of elaborate, tricked-out street dancing that, by the end of the film, can almost become tiresome. In Revolution, there's car dancing, table dancing (not how you might imagine), salsa, modern dance, and good ol' fashioned industrial-landscape street dancing. Instead of simply trying to add more dancers, or more flips, or more paint or rain, each dance is a new take on the idea of dance performance. We love genre films because we know what we're going to get; the best genre films give us what we expect but then twist it, transform it, delight us.
7. Peter Gallagher plays evil capitalist dad. His eyebrows add tremendous gravity.
8. The chemistry between the leads is HOTT.
9. There's a genuine Marxist, agit-prop commentary at the heart of the film. Granted, this commentary gets muddled with a few of the developments at the end, but the idea of art as a way for the invisible working class to make themselves visible — a notion actually articulated by the hottie protagonist — is startlingly perceptive, not to mention progressive. The underclass uses their bodies, their millenial-tech skills, and social media savvy to make the bourgeoisie wake the fuck up. Like Magic Mike, this is a social commentary film posturing as a dance film.
Don't mistake me: there is no shortage of hokey lines. There is a bit of low-budget green-screening. The ending is wholly improbable. But that's how dance movies — and most genre movies, for that matter — work. What surprises me about Step Up Revolution, then, is how it transcends its badness and becomes more than the sum of its dance movie parts.
You don't need to see it in 3D. You probably don't even need to see it in the theater. But let it be known: Step Up Revolution is authentically, spectacularly, surprisingly awesome.