December 3, 2010
Favorite dance films
I absolutely love the art of dance. From the time I could walk, I was twirling and leaping. I had a brief stint of little-girl ballet, and then took up the discipline seriously at age 11 and continued through high school. Tough auditions and a lack of non-competitive opportunities at college forced me out of the sport, though I remained an ardent spectator. But dance shows are expensive, so when the art form is captured on celluloid I'm in hog heaven. In anticipation of the impending release of Darren Aronofsky's ballet horror freak-out Black Swan and in honor of the fact that dance just roolz, here are some of my favorite dance-themed or dance-centric films. To make things interesting, I'm going to assume that anyone remotely interested in this post has seen the "obvious" choices here (i.e. Singin' in the Rain, The Red Shoes, Fred and Ginger musicals). I have divided my picks into three somewhat ill-defined categories for your convenience.
The Biz - what it takes to be a pro
Limelight (1952) - People often forget that Charlie Chaplin had a career post-1940, and while it was hardly prolific he did produce a couple more gems, including this bittersweet showbiz story. Echoing A Star Is Born, it chronicles the friendship between a ballerina on the rise (Claire Bloom) and a vaudeville star on the decline (Chaplin). The final scene at the theater will have you reaching for the tissues, but also laughing - it's the only onscreen pairing of Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
The Band Wagon (1953) - Do you love film noir and musicals? Well, I have got news for you! It's not a film noir musical (though at least one exists for the stage), but rather the glorious "Girl Hunt Ballet" that serves as the big number in this film. Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse slink through a 12-minute tour-de-force surrounded by trenchcoats, gats, and impossibly versatile sets. Aside from that, though, the film offers many other delights, such as the self-conscious mockery of Astaire's failing career, a zippy script by the crack team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green (perhaps you're familiar with their work on a certain Singin' in the Rain?) and the leads' lovely pas-de-deux in the park.
The Turning Point (1977) - This film is now remembered mostly as a bit of Oscar trivia - it's tied with The Color Purple (1985) for the greatest amount of nominations (11) without any wins. That's a shame, because it's actually quite good and a real treat for dance fans. You have Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine turning in incredible performances as former rival ballerinas - their scenes together are an absolute feast for anyone who loves great actresses. You have dancer Leslie Browne as MacLaine's daughter, showcasing her wonderful talent. And you have Baryshnikov! Most of all, though, it's a thoughtful look at the inherent tragedy of an industry that pushes its stars into retirement at a relatively young age.
All That Jazz (1979) - There aren't a lot of death-obsessed musical auto-biopics out there, so I think it's pretty safe to say that this one reigns supreme. Director/choreographer Bob Fosse gives the audience a look at his troubled but incredibly fruitful life, from popping pills to creating masterpieces to sharing tender moments with his daughter. A lot of the dancing is incidental and casual, but there are two show-stopping numbers - a vaguely airplane-themed bit where the dancers are almost naked, and the final showdown with death that features women dressed as...aortas, I guess? Roy Scheider is terrific in the lead role, but you'll notice that he manages to avoid any real dancing himself!
Center Stage (2000) - Okay, full disclosure: I am in no position to objectively discuss this film's merit (or lack thereof, as the case may be). It came out around the time that I started dancing myself, and became inextricably intertwined with that part of my life. Everyone in dance class knew all the lines and quoted them frequently, and my ballet teacher borrowed liberally from its moves on more than one occasion. With the exception of Zoe Saldana (and bless her multi-talented soul), the dancers of the film are played by real dancers - aka not actors - so you're not exactly gonna find the next Brando here. But despite the uneven acting and the ludicrous and melodramatic plot, it always stays fun and funny - whether intentionally or unintentionally. And the dancing is fantastic and plentiful - from ballet to salsa to the knockout final number with a little bit of everything (including simulated dance sex!)
Talk to Her (2002) - You shouldn't need another reason to see Almodovar's universally acclaimed masterpiece, but for dance nuts it might interest you to know that one of the characters is an aspiring ballerina. It's hardly a focus of the film, but you do get rehearsal scenes, two beautiful and unconventional performances at the ballet, and a choreographer played by the inimitable Geraldine Chaplin (yes, daughter of Charlie).
I Just Wanna Dance! - dancing for funsies or narratively ignored reasons
The musicals of Stanley Donen that don't end in "Rain" (1949-1958) - While director Donen will probably be mostly remembered (dude's still alive!) for Singin' in the Rain, his other musicals deserve attention and praise too - and the man knows how to stage a dance number. I've previously expressed my affection for On The Town (1949), which in my opinion is nipping at SitR's heels in terms of quality and, like its more famous cousin, features an elaborate fantasy ballet conceived and executed by Gene Kelly (plus Ann Miller's incomparable tap dancing!). Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) needs a boatload of charm to compensate for the fact that it essentially endorses kidnapping as a dating technique, and it delivers in spades with the mind-boggling "barn-raising" number. Funny Face (1957) teams Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire for a fun romp that features dancing of both the dreamily classical and brashly modern variety. And The Pajama Game (1957) boasts not only Doris Day, but the sultry "Steam Heat" and absolutely bonkers "Once-a-Year Day" sequences. I still haven't seen all of Donen's musicals, but I'm inclined to say that you can't really go wrong.
My Sister Eileen (1955 - not to be confused with the 1942 non-musical version) - I found myself pleasantly surprised when I recorded this on TCM earlier this year. Janet Leigh and Rosalind Russell star as sisters coming to New York to make it big, and while that setup has been exploited infinite times this incarnation is fresh, funny, and sweet. On hand to play their paramours are a young Jack Lemmon and a young Bob Fosse, who also provides choreography and dances a springy, effortless interlude. But if that's too highbrow for you, there's also a huge conga line at the end.
The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) - It would appear that director Jacques Demy appropriated my fantasy of life being a happy dancey musical, went back in time, and made it a film. In this candy-colored wonderland, people dance through the streets and sing their feelings, and besides the radiant Catherine Deneuve we also have none other than Gene Kelly himself (speaking fluent French and still moving marvelously at age 55!). The songs are infectious and while the dancing by the leads is rather light, Demy packs the Rochefort town square full of extras to pull of some big numbers.
Sweet Charity (1969) - It always comes back to Fosse. Bob directed this adaptation of Fellini's Nights of Cabiria, starring Shirley MacLaine as the titular girl who just wants to be loved. MacLaine, trained as a dancer, is a joy as always, as are the quintessentially Fosse "Rich Man's Frug" number and the awesome psychadelic "Rhythm of Life" with Sammy Davis Jr.
Forever Fever aka That's the Way I Like It (1998) - Okay, tough guy who's been smirking through this post thinking all my choices are obvious, I raise you this DISCO MOVIE FROM SINGAPORE! I watched it in an Asian Cinema class, and although it might have just been due to relief that it wasn't another morbid or disturbing film like everything else in that class, it was a real crowd pleaser. It's a quasi-adaptation of Saturday Night Fever, in which John Travolta's character from that film steps out of the screen and serves as a disco mentor to dorky Hock. Yeah, it's a bit silly, but it's got killer moves, some serious subplots, and it's always interesting to explore the popular entertainment and culture of a lesser-known country (although the film is in English, one of Singapore's two official languages).
Hairspray (2007) - I'm sure most people are aware of this film...but are they aware of how downright awesome it is? Even though musicals are still being made, most of them are afraid to plunge headfirst into the classical tradition - they'll use pop songs instead of showtunes and create logical reasons for anyone to be singing and dancing. But Hairspray just GOES there. A fantastic ensemble cast shines down to the smallest part, the songs are groovy, the dancing is retro-wonderful and John Travolta in drag isn't quite as disturbing as you'd think. A film about integration on an "American Bandstand"-type show shouldn't be this fun, but I think it would be right at home in MGM's Golden Age.
Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer (2002) - What makes this documentary great is that it not only gives a thorough account of Kelly's life and career, but it really probes his technique and creative process. Despite being a fervent admirer of Kelly for some time, I didn't quite realize how relentlessly innovative he was when it came to dance on screen, and how hard he pushed to integrate dance with the story and emotional arcs of the characters. And of course, it'll have you queueing up his movies like crazy!
Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary (2002) - Ignore the abysmal title that denotes bargain-bin horror - this is actually a silent film adaptation of a ballet adaptation of Dracula directed by Guy Maddin. If that sounds trippy - well, it is. Maddin evokes the look of a highly stylized silent film (but with more cutting) to film this hallucinogenic combination of cinema and ballet (but on sets, not a stage). It's like nothing you've seen before - and I mean that as a compliment.
La danse (2009) - There are two very niche audiences for this minimalistic three-hour documentary about the Paris Opera Ballet - serious dance aficionados (like myself) and those who are endlessly fascinated by watching people practicing their trade (like my boyfriend). There's no interviews, intertitles, or narration - just footage of the company preparing a season of shows and snippets of the resulting performances. It's an unprecedented look inside possibly the best ballet company in the world, and if you've got the stamina for it, it can be a very rich experience.
What are your favorite dance movies?