[27 July 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
In Step Up Revolution‘s Miami, the beaches gleam white and the girls wear bikinis. For Sean (Ryan Guzman), the city is exciting and also distant, because he lives “past all those skyscrapers and palm trees.” Just so, the camera swoops over this standard iconography to Sean’s equally clichéd neighborhood. Here, more or less on the waterfront, the buildings are squat and drab, but the kids are cool. They’re so cool, indeed, that they practice their dance moves at a salsa joint called Ricky’s. Where he lives, Sean goes on, “Everyone has a voice, and there comes a time when you have to shout, to fight, for what you want.”
Er, okay, so you don’t expect logic from a Step Up movie. Let’s say dancing is a form of speech, and it can be loud—like shouting—when performed by swarms of prodigiously rehearsed and lithe young bodies, and accompanied by a deafening boombox, in this movie played by the awesome DJ Penelope (Cleopatra Coleman). The opening scene in Step Up Revolution illustrates: Sean and his friends arrive on a main street in shiny lowriders then dance furiously, mostly to approving smiles and awestruck gasps from passersby. They bring along a cameraman, ensuring that the show is captured for YouTube, where they hope to win a contest by getting 10 million hits.
The prize is $100,000, supposedly a lot of money for these 99%ers—who rather miraculously put together elaborate costumes and technologies for their stunningly camera-ready numbers. The local news does its part by running the story with a pretty standup reporter who asks whether what these crazy kids are doing is “art or public disturbance.” Hmm. Before you spend too much time pondering this question, the movie provides distractions in the form of a developer named Anderson (Peter Gallagher). He has plans to develop Sean’s neighborhood and also a daughter named Emily (So You Think You Can Dance runner-up Kathryn McCormick).
This one-two punch sets up for the conflicts and bad decisions to come. He and his dance group cofounder Eddy (Misha Gabriel) decide they’ll use their performances to draw attention to Anderson’s big meanie threat. He falls for Emily, too, a princessy type who wants to join the group in order to find some “creativity,” as advised by the snooty dance company lady whose school Emily really wants to join. Before you can say “Save the Last Dance,” Sean and Emily are dancing up a duety storm (in the studio, in the warehouse, in the surf), in between arguments over whether to keep her identity a secret from Sean’s friends, in particular the easily irritated Eddy.
As usual, the Step Up plot doesn’t make much sense, depending on preposterous lies and betrayals and mistaken identities. It doesn’t bother to make the romance convincing, the father-daughter tensions interesting, or Sean’s single-mom sister (Megan Boone) relevant to anything, except that she provides him a place to live and a not-so-loud voice of reason (dancing, she suggests, won’t pay rent). It does offer up a few allusions to the Heat (caps and t-shirts) and a stack of dance performances. These include an invasion of a gallery (where dancers wear camouflage to blend in with paintings—until they don’t), more than one invasion where the dancers brandish finger-guns, and yet another invasion, this time of a city council meeting. Here the dancers don suits and Mad Men-ish fedoras, carry briefcases and cellphones, and mechanical-move amid flurries of bills to make the statement that “We are not for sale.”
It’s an admirable idea, that art can be “protest,” be principled and even speak truth to power. That doesn’t mean the artists don’t want to get paid, or that they can’t be as petty and mean and easily swayed as the corporate villains. Sean urges Emily to resist her dad’s expectations, to “break the rules.” These rules aren’t always clear, of course, and Emily is at heart a good and not very imaginative girl who’s got a stake in following at least some of them. The artists come to see the value in this when they find out that they are, in fact, for sale. Following the big-show-where-every-dance-style-takes-a-solo finale, the dancers are approached by Nike, of all corporations. So much for revolution, so much for protest art. Eddy smiles broadly: “Where do I sign?”