Growing up on the rough streets of the city, troubled teen Tyler Gage (Channing Tatum) knows he has no chance to ever make it out of there. One night Tyler and his friends are caught vandalizing part of the Maryland School for the Arts. As punishment the court lands Tyler with a community service gig at the same school where he is immediately drawn to lithe ballet student Nora Clark (Jenna Dewan). Nora also notices Tyler’s untapped talent on the dancefloor. When her partner injures his leg, Nora recruits Tyler as a stand-in so she can pass her all-important final exam. Sparks soon fly between the mismatched pair, but can they find the right moves to toe-tap their way towards a brighter future?
Opinions differ as to which particular film sparked the current revival in movie musicals but along with High School Musical (2005), the Step Up franchise has proven a notable hit with young audiences. Although arguably indebted to the MTV-produced Julia Stiles vehicle, Save the Last Dance (2001), the success of Step Up spawned three sequels so far along with a host of imitators such as the British made StreetDance 3D (2010). One possible explanation why this film struck a chord with those who would normally shun musicals is that the subtext of the film argues sensitivity is an integral part of masculinity and therefore neither fey nor uncool. Making her directorial debut, actress-choreographer Anne Fletcher links dance to this idea of realising one’s potential, regardless of social background. Here, dance is drawn somewhat like martial arts, as a means to instill confidence, to allow the performer to take control of a situation and redirect their energy in a more positive direction.
Hence Tyler learns self-control and responsibility whilst in turn teaching Nora to loosen up and become more spontaneous in order to realise her dreams. The film catapulted Channing Tatum to stardom whilst Jenna Dewan found her forte in other dance films, such as the conceptually similar Take the Lead (2006), after struggling in shoddy horror flicks like Tamara (2005). Evidently sparks flew off the set as well as on given the stars married shortly after filming was completed. Look out for Disney starlet Alyson Stoner, from Camp Rock (2008), who shows off some of her own moves in a charming scene with Tatum.
Elswhere there are perhaps a few too many talky scenes at the expense of the crowd-pleasing dance sequences, a mistake given the drama is rather tepid including a heavy-handed detour into gangsta tragedy. Like a lot of contemporary dance films, this strains overly hard to seem hip but its attempts at dissecting the social malaise of its urban milieu, while admirable, are ultimately less credible than the central romance. Predictable, yes, but there is something charmingly old-fashioned about its familiarity as a love story. The leads are charismatic and share a chemistry that seems obvious in hindsight, but more crucially are indeed credible dancers. The film comes alive during the dance sequences, fusing ballet, hip-hop, and street dance moves with a panache that speaks more eloquently of its themes than the clichéd drama. A suitably uplifting R&B soundtrack coupled with Tatum’s winning performance will likely rouse even curmudgeonly couch potatoes to get up and dance.