Coyote Ugly delivered two distinct pleasures (only two, and both very guilty): the bartenders performing instant-camp raunchy numbers atop the bar and next-Aussie-thing Adam Garcia getting next-to-naked. It’s with hopeful expectations of satisfying these two pleasures that one goes to see Bootmen. Sure, there’s the outside chance that it will be as good as Strictly Ballroom, but realistically, the film looks more like it will be a manly, hyperbolized Foster’s-beer take on Center Stage: “Australian for dance flick!”
The masculine tone of the film begins from the opening shot of a motorcycle zooming along a rough shoreline to a steel mill as a guitar score riffs at full throttle. The lackluster opening, like much of the film, has the look and tone of mediocre ‘80s television. In fact, there is an almost astonishing lack of any temporal signs that would indicate it was made after 1990, or that it was made for theatrical release. Aussie accents aside, the film would be well-suited for a matinee slot on TBS. The premise is entirely familiar: a working class guy, Sean (Adam Garcia) has a bad attitude about his industrial job and longs to fulfill his dream… to be a tap dancer. In most movies, the aspiration would be something sports-related; that he wants to dance doesn’t make him any more interesting or artistically driven. He’s just as charmless as any of the other guys at the pub.
Sean still lives at home with his dubious brother and disapproving father; naturally, mom’s dead and buried. When the steel plant starts layoffs, Sean lands a dance gig in Sydney. He’s out of place in the sophisticated city, doing a routine in a tuxedoed dance line. He quickly gets fired after punching the show’s star, and goes home to find that Linda (Sophie Lee), whom he started dating before leaving town, has slept with his brother. Depressed, the once-cocksure lad has nothing to be cocky about until he decides to start his own dance group. It turns out that talented, tap-dancing blue-collar guys abound in Newcastle, Australia. The Bootmen, as they come to be called, evolve from a scrappy act to produce a phenomenal show, and not to get rich but to benefit the workers. Frankly, I would have pocketed the cash.
Bootmen aspires to be (or at least steal elements from) Flashdance and The Full Monty, without capturing either film’s sexiness or touching humor, respectively. With little sensual or comedic appeal, there’s little left of the dance film genre for Bootmen to resemble, save the dancing. Instead, it plays out more like an action drama without the budget for pyrotechnics but with some fancy hoofing in its place. In an apparent attempt to justify the noisy stomping about on metal plates, Bootmen looks at first—like other current musicals—like it’s sympathetic to its blue-collar protagonists. In contrast to popular tap dancing connotations of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dressed to the nines in Top Hat, Bootmen joins other recent musicals, from the aforementioned Flashdance and The Full Monty to Dancer in the Dark and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, in its portrayal of working class characters. The difference between the recent wave of musicals and the let’s-put-on-a-show flicks of the 1930s and ‘40s (those directed by Busby Berkeley or starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney), comes in Bootmen‘s resolution. In classical Hollywood, the stories followed “a star is born” formula, and the characters were delivered out of the Depression. In the more recent films, the endings may be “happy,” but there is little sense that much social progress has actually been made. In Flashdance, the Jennifer Beals’s Alex presumably gets into dance school, and this implied happy ending is as upbeat as they get. (What a feeling!) The guys in The Full Monty may have some extra cash to cover a brief recession, but realistically, the money will be spent relatively quickly. In Bootmen, the proceeds go to the workers; it’s an admirable effort, but the characters will still be working stiffs when the show is over. The dancers never discuss trying to take their show on the road or performing in Sydney. They know where their place is and seem fairly content to stay there.
In lieu of making a strong pro-labor statement, Bootmen focuses on asserting that these dancers are not pansies. The director, who also created the stage show Tap Dogs, seems to have a preoccupation with asserting his protagonists’ masculinity. So, he peppers Bootmen with action-film scenes, including a car chase and innumerable mano-a-mano scuffles. (The film is rated R not for sexual content—there is none—but for violence.) The characters toss around occasional homophobic insults, not in a provocative or particularly offensive way, but more to reassure viewers that they’re all straight, and that, really, this is not a chick flick, but a guy flick. But considering how hard Fox Searchlight has marketed the film to (straight) women and gay men, based on Garcia’s appeal, this macho posturing is probably unnecessary. In New York, full-page ads prominently featuring Garcia have appeared in the gay press, and queer publications have given the film disproportionately high coverage, compared to the mainstream press. The effects of the campaign could clearly be seen on the film’s opening at the Angelika Film Center: the audience was almost exclusively single women and men in pairs. It doesn’t take a sociologist or marketing whiz to chart the attendance patterns here. (This question of core audience, of course, could be a matter of cultural difference between Australia and the U.S.)
So how appealing is Garcia here? Well, he had better lighting in Coyote Ugly and here, he rarely wears less than two layers. In one (inadvertently) comic scene, Garcia contorts his face to simulate crying; even more fatally, he doesn’t have the charisma to make the viewer fall in love with him during the lighter scenes. Conceivably, acting would take a back seat to the dancing in Bootmen, but the dance routines remain surprisingly sparse and unimpressive until the big show. By curtain time, the mediocrity of the movie, from its familial drama to an unnecessary revenge subplot, has become so tiresome that it’s a relief that the big dance finale is over so soon. The final number does redeem the film somewhat, but even here the guyness of the Bootmen’s act remains solidly in place: Sean enters the stage riding a semi, and supporting players make prominent use of power tools. To keep the noise level up, the dancers wear microphones at their ankles so that their metal-on-metal taps will drown out even the live hard rock band that accompanies them.
It seems contradictory that Bootmen, which strives to demonstrate and even celebrate what appears to be a “working man”‘s art, has been theatrically marketed to an upscale art-house urban audience. This target marketing has created a kind of tourism—showing how the other half lives without really challenging or inspiring social change. Might not this film be better received if it were marketed, not so specifically to women and gay men, but strategically to the “average” men it works so hard to represent?