As usual, Wandering Through the Shelves has given me an excuse to catch up on movies you probably wouldn’t believe that I have missed- movies that I probably never would have sought out without this weekly challenge. The most crucial check off of my bucket list this week was Footloose, which until this week all I knew of was the Kenny Loggins song of the same name and Chris Pratt’s summary of the plot in Guardians of the Galaxy. I now know that Kevin Bacon understood what no one else in Beaumont did; that dancing has a way of helping you blow off steam like nothing else can. Not even Tractor Chicken.
Footloose may not be my favourite movie about dancing but it shares a philosophy of dance with some that are. My first pick is Billy Elliot (2000), whose main character is an 11 year-old boy with lots of reasons to want to blow off steam. His mother is dead, his father is distracted by the 1984 Miner’s Strike, and boxing doesn’t seem to be working out for him. It’s only when a no-nonsense ballet teacher (Julie Walters) takes him under her wing that he finds his voice, confidence, and an outlet for his frustration. (Like Kevin Bacon, he does a lot of angry dancing). It’s touching and very funny.
Taking a page from Billy Elliot, inner city New York fifth graders learn several styles of ballroom dancing in the 2005 documentary Mad Hot Ballroom. The film follows a pilot project with the NYC Department of Education that aims to expose students to dances from around the world including the tango, foxtrot, and merengue. Like Billy Elliot, it’s surprisingly funny, with lots of Kids Say the Darndest Things Moments. Plus, it’s hard not to crack up seeing the discomfort of 10 year-old boys having to dance with a girl for the first time. Just as importantly though, the documentary lets us bear witness to a program that gives these kids a unique opportunity to learn about the arts, other cultures, and the opposite It may just make you want to dance too. At the screening I attended ten years ago, I passed a couple swing dancing right there in the theater.
Not every movie about dancing will make you want to get up and dance though. My third pick is Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (2008), which to me follows two kindred spirits who whose bodies are exploited in one way or another for the entertainment of others. As the title suggests, Marisa Tomei’s aging stripper is not the central character in The Wrestler but it’s a memorable one, especially when contrasted with Mickey Rourke’s aging wrestler. Both characters are seeing signs that it’s time to make a clean break. She manages to walk away by the end, getting a chance to see what else life has in store for her, even if the wrestler isn’t so lucky.
Footloose – My favourite scene in this movie is and will always be the tractor scene, which is one of the few in this movie not involving any dancing or head-bobbing at all. Even before I saw the movie the soundtrack was part of my life – a kid on my bus had the soundtrack and insisted that the driver play it every single day. Which would have been fine except that every day I heard the same two songs before my stop so it got a little bit repetitive. But the movie and especially the tractor scene are still great.
Black Swan – this movie is creepy and crazy and awesome. I don’t even know how to describe it or do it justice. It’s a must see and it’s about dancing so that works out really well.
House Party – it is because of this movie that I knew in 1990 who Kid ‘N Play were even though I had never heard any of their songs. It was everything a white kid needed to know about house parties and rap battles and b-boy dancing. And everything I needed to hold a (brief) conversation with all the white kids in my high school rocking fades and Raiders hats and jackets. We watched it recently and I really didn’t remember any of it but it’s fun and it has a few recognizable faces in addition to Kid ‘N Play, including both Martin Lawrence and Tisha Campbell, pre-Martin.
Sean doesn’t know how to describe why he likes Black Swan? Let me give it a try, and I only need two words: Lesbian sex. But sure, let’s call it “dancing.” I prefer “dancing” to dancing myself, but I am quite partial to Billy Elliot, that little scamp! I was a bit of a mean little knock-kneed ballerina myself, once upon a time, and I relate to the toe-tapping need to dance although admittedly I’m not much of an angry dancer these days. Angry baking? Sure. Angry showering? All the time. But dancing I save for the happy times.
Cuban Fury – Bruce (Nick Frost) was a child salsa prodigy but gave up the swivelling hips when bullies tore the sequins from his chest and taught him a valuable lesson in humility: salsa’s for pussies. He hasn’t danced in 25 years. He lives a lonely life, bullied at work by his manager Drew (Chris O’Dowd). But then the office gets a new boss, Julie (Rashida Jones), who happens to be a dancer herself and suddenly his passion is reignited. All three of these people are comic heroes of mine, and the movie works purely on that level alone. But I also really love the atypical-dancer motif, which is only acknowledged by others in the film. Salsa may have you thinking more Antonio Banderas than Nick Frost (are you picturing Patrick Swayze and Chris Farley doing their Chippendales act right now?) but Frost does the legwork (and the foot work!) to make the dance come alive. Although I’m not sure I needed to see him wearing quite so many silk blouses, I’m a sucker for Latin music (and Latin music mixed tapes!), and I go absolute batshit crazy for a dance-off.
Waiting for Guffman – One of Christopher Guest’s genius mockumentaries, this one tells the tale of Corky St. Clair, a fabulous wannabe-Broadway director trapped in small-town Missouri, where he gets to put on a low-budget historical musical for the town’s anniversary. As usual, his talented cast mostly ad-lib their way through the movie, which makes for crazy good times, but my favourite is when Christopher Guest is attempting to teach choreography to a bunch of bozos. Corky’s patented dance moves are irresistible and I dare you not to smile. Eugene Levy couldn’t do it – he had to be hidden way in the back during filming because every time Guest danced it would set him off into a fit of giggles that took too long to recover from. It’s so earnest and deadpan I don’t know how any of them ever make it through a scene – I know I never do.
Gotta Dance – This documentary follows a for-true-real experiment by the New Jersey Nets – one year they put together the NBA’s first-ever all-senior (as in citizens! 60+ and creaking hips all the way) hip-hop dance troupe. I suppose this is a pretty good counter-point to Matt’s documentary with the kids since this one introduces us to a crowd of people who thought their ship had sailed. Some are discovering dance for the first time, others have enjoyed a little soft shoe in the kitchen for so many years the linoleum’s worn out. Two of the troupe’s over-80 members are grandmothers of Nets cheerleaders, and their stories are among my favourites. We get to know all of them, including one dowdy school teacher who develops a Beyonce-like Sacha Fierce alternate ego for performing. They’re fun to watch, even as some let their 15 minutes go to their heads, but they’ve all got commendable energy and spirit…but when they’re out on the court at half-time with thousands of people half-paying attention as they pee and get hot dogs, will they even remember the moves? Or will the racy Jay-Z lyrics trigger seizures? Anything can happen, folks!
Bonus Pick: Happy Feet The songs are great and the feet are happy…and so am I when I’m watching this.