August 12, 2014

“I wanted to show great dancing and inventive choreography without too much cutting, without chopping it up too much. Good dancing should speak for itself. Watch old Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly movies – a loose head-to-toe shot and very few edits. It’s so restrained and elegant!” -Trish Sie, director of Step Up All In

The durable Step Up franchise released its fifth entry over the weekend, a giddy 3D extravaganza subtitled All In. In these Rob Marshall-marred times, the series is the closest thing we have to the spectacular musicals of the classical era. That is, they hire people who know how to dance…and let them dance. No celebrities here, just kids who can move. Producer Adam Shankman said, “What’s nice about these movies is, they don’t need stars. They just need people who can do everything.”  This keeps costs down and has the added benefit of promoting young talent. Channing Tatum started off his career in the first Step Up, and Summit Entertainment is now placing their bets on Ryan Guzman, a Mexican-American actor who comes from a modeling and MMA background. Guzman adapted his cage fighting agility to the dance floor, and while he may never develop Tatum’s natural charisma, he has effortlessly meshed with the pro hoofers on the set. And the directors have respected their movements. All In was directed by Trish Sie, a dancer and choreographer who has worked for Pilobolus and those OK GO music videos (the lead singer’s her brother). She takes a distanced approach, allowing the performances to take place almost entirely in long master shots, privileging the dancers and the choreography of Dondraco Johnson, Christopher Scott, and Jamal Sims. Sie shows great faith in her dancers and collaborators, as well as the intelligence of her audience. The result is a joyous mix of old-school craft and angular modern dance styles.

The story is packed with as much incident as a ’30s backstage musical. Guzman returns from the previous Step Up Revolution with his dance crew The Mob. They are struggling to make a living in Los Angeles,  rejected in auditions in increasingly humiliating and racially charged ways (it’s the most diverse cast this side of the Fast and Furious franchise). On their last attempt they are done up in stereotyped Mexican outfits, in sombreros and mariachi garb. The crew wants to give up and move back to Miami, while Guzman is obsessed with “making it” in Hollywood. He sees a way in the VH1 reality show “The Vortex”, a hipper So You Think You Can Dance? hosted by Lady Gaga clone Alexxa Brava (a very funny Izabella Miko). With The Mob departed, he sets out to build a new crew with Step Up series standby Moose (Adam Sevani). This provides an opportunity to gather a bunch of actors from previous iterations, including co-lead Briana Evigan, who returns to the dance floor after her turn in Step Up 2 the Streets (2008). Everyone has a loaded backstory. Evigan is insecure about her bum knee, Guzman alienates his best friend because of his hyper-competitiveness, while they are both dealing with traumatic break-ups. There’s also inadvertent adultery, reality show rigging, and a wordless love story between two dancers who specialize in the robot. The supporting cast is thick with exuberant performances, especially that of “World Class B Boy” Kid David, who plays dance instructor Chad as a hilariously foul mix of Warren William and Pepe le Pew.

Step Up Revolution had stunningly elaborate set pieces, though it was a slog to get through the exposition in between them. With All In, Trish Sie has scaled everything down to human size, developing natural transitions between plot and performance, and imbuing the characters with an inner life. While Revolution is Busby Berkeley razzle dazzle, All In opts for the naturalism of Astaire and Kelly. One of the more irresistible numbers emerges out of a rehearsal in the dance studio of Moose’s parents. Guzman’s crew is preparing to shoot an audition video for The Vortex, while Chad leads a children’s class at the other half of the room. The routine emerges organically, as Chad joins Guzman’s team, followed by the kids joining in, creating the illusion of spontaneity. The whole film exudes this loose charm, as Sie focuses more on the dancers than the dance: ”  I wanted to lighten things up. I wanted to make a movie about young people and their daily lives – the drive to dance, the realities of how tough that world can be”.

It is a film of touching sincerity about making ends meet as a member of the creative working class. The thematic arc of the film traces how Guzman learns to accept his failure to become a star, and simply enjoys his art for art’s sake. The inspirational speech before the climactic dance battle is about lowering your economic expectations if you want to pursue a career in the arts. I found it all to be very moving, but it would be all for naught if the dance sequences didn’t deliver. But they do, and in a variety of moods and tones. I was most taken with the pas de deux between Guzman and Evigan at a Las Vegas amusement park, a flirtatious push and pull that twirls around a tea cup ride set to Bobby Brown’s “Every Little Step”. In its teasing lightness it reminded me of the sublime Fred Astaire-Cyd Charisse “Dancing in the Dark” duet from The Band Wagon. That’s not to say it’s all restrained elegance. There is a whole Frankenstein’s monster routine with electrical bursts, while the finale is a dystopic steampunk routine with twirling fireballs. Sie mostly shoots the latter in a wide low angle, capturing the ecstatic waves of undulating bodies. Shot natively in 3D, the added depth gives background dancers as much of the frame as the leads. It’s an egalitarian musical, and a great one.