Reviews: Step Up

Step Up 5 - Twilight Zone

Step Up 5 was meant to be a normal film. And on the surface it is. But a freak combination of bad directing and wonky plotting makes it so much more.

This is not the story they told, but it is the story I saw.

All is not as expected with the protagonists of the last three films, the planes of existence are colliding and reality has leaked into their lives. Andie (Step Up 2) damaged her ankle and became a production assistant. Reality has allowed Moose (Step Up 3) to actually have a stable happy relationship. And for Sean (Step Up 4), it turns out being a professional dancer pays poorly and has abysmal job security. But Sean can’t let his dreams die, so he turns to an even more dangerous reality. Reality TV.

At first its seems like things are back to normal. The three protagonists meet up and form a dance. There’s a recruiting montage of new and old characters. There’s a big competition to win.

But it's not the same, Reality TV is insidiously working its effects into the film. When they open an invitation it beams the gold rays from Pulp Fiction. The unreal elements stack up more until even the camera is infected. Shots that were like any other are suddenly plastered with Reality TV logos and captions.

Moose was happy with reality. As melodrama flairs up he finds his girlfriend is suddenly on the casino floor in Las Vegas with him as another woman kisses him. But he does enjoy dancing.

Andie might not like reality, but she’s resigned to it. You do your job and move on. To be let back into the world of dance films once in a while is enough for her and she doesn’t want to push and lose it all again.

Sean, Sean can’t handle it. Caught in the maelstrom of worlds it becomes a mania for him as he careers back and forth, unable to find his place and instead of stopping to regain rebalance his fear drives him to move even harder which things even worse. The new Reality is too stylised, too extreme.

And then comes the realisation. Dance films are about taking everything and repackaging it into a reality that feels good and makes you smile. Real problems? That’s just a Challenge to Overcome. And if Reality TV is the villain, well there’s only one way to deal with that…

They danced and someone had a problem with that, so they dance and everything is fine.

Which is why Step Up 5 might be the greatest of them all.

Step Up 3-4 - They Danced And Someone Had A Problem With That, So They Dance And Everything Is Fine

After the second film, there's no real need to review the next two films individually. The stories mean nothing, and everything is an excuse to watch some of the most elaborate and wonderfully choreographed dance sequences you'll see around. The plots exist purely to set up the romance, the dance sequences and a reason for the love interest to run away and come back just before the big ending dance.

Dancing has stopped being a thing which some people are interested in, or a driving influence in the plot. Instead Dancing is a philosophy, a way of life. Dancing is letting yourself be unique. Dancing is about Being Free and Being Happy and Being Yourself and substituting the worries of the world with a well-timed moonwalk, in much the same way as the films do with the plot.

The class undertones are still there, but they've been transformed by the films unwavering dedication to worship at the alter of Dance. Most of the characters will come from urban backgrounds, except for the love interest who will be obscenely rich to provide a twist and the happy ending. The rich kid will have inattentive parents and siblings and the last dance is their way of flipping those parents and siblings off.

It's not about exploring class prejudice and poverty, but the kids have urban backgrounds because it's having a special bond and culture and way of life and dance infiltrates every aspect of that.

And it's a good thing. The first Step Up was concerned about how everyone puts you in your place by not believing you can be anything more than you already are. The next two Step Up films are about being all you are. Dreaming of bigger things and making those dreams real.

The Step Up films wants people to stop worrying, dance and be happy. And they want you to stop worrying, watch their incredible dancing and be happy.

Who can ask for more than that?

Step Up 2 - Class Traitor

Step Up 2 is a sequel to the advertising of Step Up, not the actually film. It's weird just how quickly the franchise becomes it's own legend. The film really serves as an example of just how powerful marketing is in shaping the world it's meant to sell.

Step Up was a surprisingly sincere film, focused entirely on its story instead of spectacle. Step Up 2 is not.

There's no slow shift through the franchise either. Step Up 2 is not a half way point between the depth of Step Up and the ludicrousness of Step Up 3. Step Up 2 is a fully fledged ludicrous dance film. There's a big competition that they're competing for with very unclear rules and as many rounds as the writers can think of inventive dances. The heroes need to win the Big Competition to Save The Day. When they're not part of the competition they're going to underground dance-offs to do some more dancing.

It's beautiful, stunning and utterly dumb.

And you know what? That's not a bad thing, these are fantastic films to appreciate the awe-inspiring talent on display. Sometimes art is just creating and enjoying something being really pretty.

The problem with Step Up 2 is it's a betrayal of Step Up. Step Up was an examination of class can conspire to keep someone from being all they can be and stop them from breaking out of the poverty trap.

Step Up 2 is about the challenges of being very rich, in that people who are less rich unfairly bar you from Being All You Can Be.

Step Up was about an urban kid trying to get into a very posh Dance Academy, Step Up 2 is about the people from the very posh Dance Academy trying to compete in a street dance competition braving all the prejudices of the urban kids. Step Up 2 literally has an angry and violent black dude as the bad guy.

Part of the problem is the protagonist, Andie is meant to be from a poor area herself - but she's much more convincing as a dance academy student than someone who grew up in her neighbourhood. Maybe if they'd got some who could fit in and feel like that's where they come from, then the themes of the film might be less squicky and maybe even transform into something better.

But as it stands Step Up 2 is a beautiful film but dumb in an ugly way.

Actually a Legit Film

Step Up is a thorough and nuanced exploration of poverty and the traps that poverty brings.

Find that surprising? How about this - Step Up only has two extended dance sequences and the second one is the same dance that they'd been rehearsing throughout the entire film. The film goes an hour without having any real dance.

Instead Step Up is a very real film, trying and succeeding to talk about being poor in a complex manner.

The hero of the film is from a poor neighbourhood, none of their friends have money, their family didn't have money. For his whole life, no-one ever expected him to achieve anything or do anything worth talking about. And because people have been telling that to him for his whole life, he believes it too. He quits everything before he gets too deep because he's afraid of failing and nothing will ever come of it. He smashes up a school because he's alienated from it, he'll never go there, everyone tells him that he's not like the people from there, so what does he care if a few plants break?

No-one is being deliberately bad, but everyone has a predetermined idea of what he can be. The principal of the dance academy tries to hide her prejudices to a degree, but she doesn't believe he can dance. She sees his vandalism and lack of commitment and doesn't think it can change.

But it's more than that, his friends and family don't believe he can be different, and without realising it, they keep holding him down. To change his life means he has to spend less time with the people around him, he has to pursue a hobby which they don't share and that's hard. He feels like a traitor to his friends. Although his friends want the best for him, they find it hard to let him go, because he's a good friends and seeing him change is scary. There's a worry that they're going to be left behind.

The film recognises that when you're down it's hard to get up because everything is working against you. It's genuinely hard to have to fight and struggle for every scrap that comes easy to the rich white kids around you whose parents expected them to go to dance school and achieve. They've spent their lives growing up and learning the social language, and if you want to get out of poverty people force you to change and learn that language instead of being who you are.

Step Up isn't mindless fun, it's actually important.