Come see whether Judge Michael Rankins can get through this entire review without uttering the phrase "Electric Boogaloo."
Our review of Step Up (Blu-ray), published July 19th, 2012, is also available.
Two dancers. Two worlds. One dream.
My 17-year-old daughter summarized Step Up succinctly: "It's like Save The Last Dance, only with more white people."
Facts of the Case
Stop me if you've seen this one before:
• Poor boy (Channing Tatum, She's The Man) gets into trouble.
In and around the above clichés are salted several more: the gruff authority figure with a heart of gold; the parent who just doesn't understand; the meddling best friends; the tragic, senseless death from urban violence; the musical montage; the Hollywood ending.
Hey—you were supposed to stop me if you've seen this before.
One of a film reviewer's ongoing challenges is the fair assessment of product for whom said reviewer is not the target audience. I'm a 45-year-old male. Step Up was not made for me. In fact, it would not surprise me in the least if the only fortysomething males who have seen Step Up are studio executives and film reviewers obligated by occupation to view it.
Thus, I defer to my daughter, a high school senior planted squarely in the wheelhouse of this film's power stroke. I'll give you a hint: Having dragged her mother to see Step Up during its theatrical release, it was the highlight of her week to learn that her father had drawn this reviewing assignment, thus guaranteeing her lifetime access to the Step Up DVD.
By now, the short answer to the question, "Is Step Up a good movie?" should be obvious: Yes, if you're a 17-year-old girl who (a) is thunderstruck by the roller coaster joys of adolescent romance, and (b) hasn't seen this formulaic storyline a quadrillion times before.
The long answer is only slightly more complex. For what it is, Step Up is a competently made, reasonably engaging, perfectly satisfactory example of a well-worn (some might say played-out) genre. Despite its numerous flaws—the predictable, lockstep plot; the cardboard characters; the excess of subplots that only distract from the principal story; the actors who are uniformly too old and too attractive to pass for authentic high school kids (leads Channing Tatum and Jenna Dewan were both born in 1980; you do the math)—the film is mostly harmless, inoffensive, throwaway entertainment. To quote Abraham Lincoln, people who like this sort of thing will find Step Up to be the sort of thing they like. (No, Lincoln didn't actually mention Step Up when he spoke that famous line. But you catch my drift.)
First-time director Anne Fletcher, best known as a choreographer on films ranging from Bring It On to The 40-Year-Old Virgin, focuses on what really matters: giving the audience ample opportunity to get to know and like her comely young stars, and to see plenty of fancy footwork. In a film like this, nothing else matters, and Fletcher obviously either understands that, or is too inexperienced a director to attempt to muck around with proven success. She hired a plethora of pretty people who can shake a tail feather, then simply gave them room to shake it.
And shake it they do. Fletcher and her hip-hop choreography specialist Jamal Sims schooled their pupils well, as the dancing in Step Up is some of the most natural and convincing to be found in a movie of this sort. The acting more or less follows suit. The cast is, for the most part, effective in navigating their paint-by-numbers roles. The one exception is female costar Dewan, a talented dancer who, as an actor, is…well…a talented dancer. One can almost see the relays clicking in her skull every time the script entrusts her with lines or requires her to emote. Fortunately for Dewan, her opposite number Tatum is smooth and likeable enough for the both of them, and his energy and streetwise cool carry the day. The most familiar face in the cast, Six Feet Under's Rachel Griffiths, slums for an easy paycheck here in the thankless role of the hard-case administrator at the arts high school that forms the film's central setting.
As automatic as much of the film appears—it's no surprise that screenwriter Duane Adler was also responsible for the all-too-similar Save The Last Dance—Fletcher and company imbue Step Up with enough life and enthusiasm that it's never boring, even at its most mechanical. Its 103 minutes breeze past without prompting more than a cursory glance at the wristwatch. The dance numbers are compelling, stylishly executed, and incorporated deftly into the narrative without slamming it to a halt. The performers have fun, and so does the intended audience. That's not a bad return for your Jackson. (That's assuming you catch a sale.)
Touchstone's DVD release adds to that presumption of value. As should be expected of a film about dance, the audio presentation sounds terrific—the music comes through with power and richness, and the dialogue is solidly balanced in the mix. (Given the lackluster nature of said dialogue, that may not be a good thing. But that's not the sound crew's fault.) The picture quality is decent, but not up to the high standard of the audio—the level of edge enhancement runs the gamut from mildly annoying to overbearing, and the color separation doesn't quite gel in a couple of scenes.
Of the smorgasbord of extras, the audio commentary offers the most entertainment value. Recorded via conference call, the track features director Fletcher and choreographer Sims phoning from Toronto, while stars Tatum and Dewan chime in from Austin and Los Angeles, respectively. It's not the most analytical or insightful commentary you'll hear this week, and there's a bit too much giggling for my taste, but it's lively and chatty, with all four participants sharing interesting remembrances (and behind-the-scenes scuttlebutt) about the making of the film. Fletcher proffers several frank observations about scenes and lines of dialogue that she left in the film for no better reason than she was instructed to do so by the studio. The style of this energetic track is perfectly suited to the movie and its audience.
Also interesting—if frustratingly brief at four and one-half minutes—is the featurette, "Making the Moves." Focusing on the film's dance sequences, and featuring the same four folks who contribute to the commentary, the piece serves up a quick snapshot of what it takes to make a movie cast get up and boogie. Not as intriguing are a selection of seven deleted scenes—mostly microscopic alternate takes and ashcan snippets of stuff we've seen in the finished film—and an unfunny 90-second blooper reel that's hardly worthy of the title.
Some viewers might enjoy the slate of material related to the Step Up dance contest, in which visitors to the film's MySpace page were invited to submit homemade dance videos to win a shot at glory as background extras. Anyone so inclined can watch Fletcher, Tatum, Dewan, and pop star Ciara reviewing the contestant submissions, see a montage cobbled together from these same amateur videos, or check out the five winning entries in their entirely.
If you like watching impossibly limber and good-looking people strutting their stuff to high-volume hip-hop and R&B, or if you long for the days when MTV actually made its bones on this sort of thing, any of the four options in the music video collection may rock your world. If you have a low tolerance for pain, I suggest skipping the Sean Paul video, "(When You Gonna) Give It Up To Me," in which Mr. Paul utters perhaps five intelligible syllables in the entire song.
Six movie previews and a naked plug for the Step Up soundtrack CD fill the remaining megabytes.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Step Up contains one sequence of abrupt violence that seems entirely out of step (no pun intended) with the rest of the movie. It's especially troubling that both the perpetrator and the victim in this incident are African American. I'm sure there was a reason why the fluffy urban love story of two cute white kids had to be interrupted with a dollop of black-on-black mayhem. I'm equally certain that I can't fathom what that reason might have been.
If you're a teenage girl—or just dig checking out hot young dancers pretending to be teenagers—Step Up and buy this DVD. If you're not in either of those categories, but someone in your household is, it won't kill you to watch with them, just once.
Guilty of making my sciatica act up. All other charges are dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
• Audio Commentary Featuring Director Anne Fletcher, Choreographer Jamal Sims, and Actors Channing Tatum and Jenna Dewan
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