Admittedly I should have been more skeptical about this remake from the get-go, but Debbie Allen's enthusiasm about it on So You Think You Can Dance coupled with my obsession with movies about dancing and or singing, caused me to be naively hopeful about it. That goodwill only lasted about a third of the way through the movie.
It started out well enough, using that same chaotic style of jumping between the hopeful students as they are packed like sardines into a room until their audition, seeing the various ways they prepare to have their dreams made or broken. Even the film stock had a certain gritty look about it that really evoked high school in a way that so many "teen movies" with their brightly colored lockers and perfectly clad students don't. Megan Mullally (vocals), Charles S. Dutton (acting), Kelsey Grammer (music) and Bebe Neuwirth (dance) put the wannabes through their paces, which had some promise. Then Freshman year started and it all went downhill from there.
After a rousing speech from the school's principal Debbie Allen (who starred in the original movie and subsequent TV show) about how it's going to be the hardest four years of these students' lives and how most of them will fail -- typical stuff, we finally got to "know" some of these students. Jenny (Kay Panabaker) is an actress with a stick up her butt, Victor (Walter Perez) is a musician who hates being forced to play classical, Marco (Asher Book) is an actor/singer who works at his father's restaurant and sounds and looks like he escaped a second-rate boy band, Alice (Kherington Payne) is a dancer who think she's better than everyone else, Kevin (Paul McGill) is a dancer who is worse than everyone else, Neil (Paul Iacono) is an irksome filmmaker in training, Denise (Naturi Naughton) is a classically trained pianist who has parents with great expectations, Malik (Collins Pennie) is an acting student with a tough background, and Joy (Anna Maria Perez de Tagle) is an actress who just likes to have fun. Your typical sort of crew for this type of film.
We follow these students on their adventures through the next four years. Jenny and Marco date and then split up and then get back together again, Kevin is told he sucks and should be a teacher and almost kills himself in the subway before he returns to Iowa. Alice gets a spot on a famous touring dance troupe, Joy gets a job on Sesame Street and they both drop out to pursue their dreams. Denise realizes she really wants to be a singer and does it with the help of Victor and Malik, despite her parents' disapproval; Neil is an idiot who believes a producer he finds on YouTube. You may consider these spoilers, but if you've ever seen a movie of this genre, you can figure out where these storylines are going the moment they begin. Seriously, Neil opens the door to a producer's office and the smiling young guy tells him that he needs to fund his own terrible sounding short film? You can pretty much do the math where this is going. Neil however, not so much.
The biggest problem is character development. Spreading this hour and a half film (which felt MUCH longer) out over four years means that we only get snapshots of their lives. We see them all banding together in the cafeteria and showing off their particular talents on their first day of school, and then just glimpses of each student each year. Some fare better for this than others, like Jenny and Victor who get the lion's share of screen time, despite the fact that they are dull as dirt. Some of it is the acting, neither Book or Panabaker are particularly stellar (he has trouble lip-synching and she's got issues looking angry), and a large part is the lackluster storyline -- their "romance" doesn't make sense, nor does the fact that two attractive guys are interested in the dishwater Jenny. Also, she never gets the aforementioned stick out of her butt, despite the fact that both her vocal and acting teachers tell her that this is her major problem. And she makes the stupid mistake of going into the trailer of a sleazy former student alone. Idiot. Did she not watch the original, which I always viewed as a cautionary tale? Joy's cute enough. We barely get to know Alice, aside from her brief flirtation with Victor that ticks her parents off. We see a fight between Malik and his mother, as she doesn't want him to attend the Performing Arts school since it is a doomed profession, but then it is never brought up again. Denise gets the most easily followed storyline, with a balance of teachers and friends telling herself to find her true dream, and her busting out of her classical training to be a singer, behind her parents back. Seeing her blossom, was truly the highlight of this film.
The known actors are basically just accessories in this film, around just to sort of guide the kids here and there when it is convenient, and in Mullally's case to bust out a song at a karaoke night and tell the kids her depressing story of not making it. Dutton's sole purpose seems to be prodding Malik to get past his troubled childhood, Grammer to be all helpful and encouraging, while Neuwirth just gets to shatter dreams. She's clearly my favorite.
But while this is a movie about performing, it seemed to lack a lot of big showy numbers. There were maybe one per year, but I guess I expected more, somehow. Or better. More dancing and more singing that really would wow me and less dull dialogue. Maybe the fact that I grew up watching the original gives me the ability to overlook long periods without performing, but in this day and age where we're used to music videos and instant YouTube entertainment, I guess I just expected more. You definitely get more dancing per minute in your typical Step Up movie and it's usually peppered with crazy moves you haven't seen before. Even the sexy number with Alice didn't really pop, and I love Kherington from SYTYCD, but this felt like Paula Abdul's "Cold-Hearted Snake" video and I spent most of it fascinated by her two-tone tights. That's not a good sign. Even the big final number wasn't all that impressive.
The only things that really did wow me were Naughton's voice and performance. That girl can sing and she's got some emotional range too, though fans of 3LW were probably aware of her vocal abilities prior to this film and those who saw Notorious earlier this year were already treated to her acting skills. To me, she's the only true star among these wannabes. And the only one whose name I'll remember.
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