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Blockbuster Talk: Two Dance Movie Maniacs Put ‘Step Up All In’ Through Its Paces

Where hath all the dancing gone?

This summer, two Grantlanders will gather to discuss the weekend’s mega-franchise, counterprogramming comedy, or teen weepie to consider truth, spoilers (!), and the Hollywood way. This week: Juliet Litman and Tara Ariano bop along to Step Up All In.

Juliet Litman: Could you ever have imagined that eight years after Channing Tatum dared to imagine a different life for himself via entrance to a fancy arts high school, we’d still be watching new installments from this franchise? Step Up All In is the fifth movie in the series, which has gradually moved away from the original themes about privilege and now lives within its own dance-centric reality. And that’s not really a complaint! After Step Up Revolution, in which the dance battle doubled as a platform to protest gentrification and capitalism in Miami, the series moved out of the high school movie genre completely. There’s a vast world of dance; don’t box Step Up in.

The trailers for this one gave away almost no information whatsoever, except that there would be some epic battles and there’s a new concept called “the vortex,” though it was nearly impossible to say what the vortex was. Very strong strategies for building some buzz. I made the mistake of wanting too much information, thus I read this interview with Adam Sevani about how quickly this one was made. His disdain for the process, and maybe the whole movie, somewhat tempered my excitement. The most upsetting fact from the Q&A was that there was insufficient time for choreographing and rehearsing. The decreased quality of the choreo was evident and disappointing to me, but was I just incepted by Moose?

The best sequence was when Sean and Andie danced their pas de deux to Bobby Brown. I wanted so much more of those expository numbers, and so much less jibber-jabber that supposedly advanced the plot. Where hath all the dancing gone? If I had seen this movie in 3-D, would the battles have been more impressive?

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Tara Ariano: I can’t answer the 3-D question; I also saw it in 2-D, though it was still obvious in the dance sequences which things would have been coming at us otherwise (beer, chandeliers, etc.). But I definitely agree there should have been much less focus on the “story” if for no other reason than not to draw attention to all the holes in it.

The movie begins when Sean happens to see the call for submissions for The Vortex, a new dance competition where the winners get a three-year contract to do a show in Las Vegas (and for all the times they repeated it was on VH1, you’d think it was a real show, which is a real slap in the face in a world where Randy Jackson Presents America’s Best Dance Crew was unjustly canceled not so long ago). He’s still licking his wounds from the desertion of the rest of the members of The Mob, his crew from Step Up Revolution, but like … that was a couple of hours ago. They’re probably still just sitting at the bus station waiting to go back to Miami: Maybe text them?

Then, when Sean’s new ragtag crew, LMNTRIX, is assembled and puts together a routine and audition video in record time, there’s a token effort to do a reality TV takedown, with a producer watching a spat between Sean and Eddy, who’s also gotten on the show with The Mob, and telling them to do it again so he can get it on tape. Later, when Sean complains about the cameras we’ve only seen once, LMNTRIX sneaks down to the basement of Caesars Palace to choreograph its next routine, as though (a) that area wouldn’t be full of people working, and (b) that Vortex producer is somewhere getting fired for losing track of the crew when it needs to get rehearsal B-roll. And if that phat Caesars suite the show booked them in isn’t rigged with hidden cameras to capture drama, then I’m not sure why VH1 hasn’t just stuck them all in a Days Inn in Henderson.

And don’t even get me started on how LMNTRIX put together a 10-minute routine with complicated props, costumes, and visual effects in A FEW HOURS. And Alexxa Brava kept telling the audience to text their votes, but that would suggest the show was live, in which case how could she get the call from some higher-up telling her which crew won? All the other crews that didn’t make the finals should sue VH1 for this shambolic affair, ESPECIALLY POREOTICS.

To get back to the beloved Moose (and leaving aside how tan and weird he looked here): Why did it take so long for him to remember that his girlfriend (dating back to the third movie), Camille, is also a dancer?! The Bobby Brown pas de deux was, indeed, adorable (though the real Neon Boneyard is not a place you can just wander around in, isn’t lit up at night, and doesn’t feature a working carnival ride), but we should have gotten one with Moose and Camille too. Those two are magic together, as anyone who saw their duet in Step Up 3D can attest.

Litman: You have brought up so many key questions. Let’s start with Moose and Camille, the true emotional center of the movie, even though they kept pushing Sean and Andie on us. Given Moose’s appearance, the movie missed on an opportunity to comment on the overlooked problem of male steroid use in Hollywood. Holy shit, did Moose grow up and fill out! But yet, I think he’s only aged six years or so since we first met him in Step Up 2: The Streets. I have a hard time believing that “worker at an industrial plant of some sort” was the only job that would have worked in this story.

There were so many other ways to reintegrate Moose. For example, couldn’t he and Camille have worked at the dance school owned by his grandparents? All of those scenes reminded me of another mid-aughts dance classic, Take the Lead. I think classical dance styles could have been easily integrated here. And at the very least, what was the point of bringing back Alyson Stoner if not to get her in LMNTRIX? This movie is disproportionately dedicated to honoring the continuity of amorous relationships, particularly given the absurd plot holes. What a waste of her considerable dance skills. I think we have to assume she had more scenes that got cut.

I’m not sure how or why, but the Step Up franchise has shifted to become oddly socially conscious. Like you mentioned, this one takes up the cause of the evils of reality TV and corporate TV companies. What’s so wrong with VH1 programming? LMNTRIX would be lucky to be on the same network as Dating Naked and all the Mona Scott shows. Any existential pursuit related to Step Up is inherently silly, but indulge me for a minute. Have we lived through the golden age of dance movies? What happened to all the Stomp the Yards, the You Got Serveds, or even the aforementioned Take the Leads? Those movies had simple formulas, sure, but they all worked. Who we are to blame for the corruption of this form? Maybe that VH1 plug was actually an indictment.

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Ariano: Sean and Andie are a problem for sure. No two Step Up movies have repeated romantic leads, and why would they? So You Think You Can Dance has shown America there is an endless supply of dancers who can kind of act, so why limit opportunities for any of the new contenders by bringing back ones we’ve already seen? When we got our first close-up on Sean outside the audition room, I had to turn to my friend Pam (with whom I’ve seen ALL of these movies, by the way; they’re our Olympics) and ask, “Is he from the last one?” Step Up Revolution is my least favorite of the franchise, which is why I’ve only watched it once; the only thing I even remember happening is Moose’s too-short, too-late cameo. Other than Tatum, all these dopey himbos are interchangeable to me, but Sevani has real charisma to go with his dance talent — and hey, maybe if he got to be the true lead, like he almost was in Step Up 3D, he’d be less inclined to dismiss the franchise in interviews.

I guess I appreciate that the series — as it has, like you said, moved out of its initial high school setting — is trying to address the question of how to make a living as dancers, and yes, I know that’s like saying anyone ever got a true sense of the economics of living in New York in your twenties from watching Friends, but it shows the filmmakers taking dance seriously not just as a hobby but as a potential job. Maybe no one but me would have been interested to see even a montage of how the final dance came together (“Everybody shut up, Sean and Andie just got a meeting with the production designer!”), but I bet I’m not the only one who would have liked to see LMNTRIX triumphant onstage at its Las Vegas residency. Again, this plot was less than half-baked, and the dance sequences were not so hot that they really justified how much slack the viewer had to give the non-dancing parts.

Juliet, did our editor, Mark, tell you that my dear friend Adam Sternbergh, now of New York Magazine, and I went to Las Vegas for the weekend in 2010 to see JabbaWockeeZ, the winners of ABDC Season 1 that were briefly featured in Step Up 2: The Streets, at The Mirage? Because we did. And it was incredible. (There was nothing untoward — my husband came too; it was just two giant nerds watching some of the unfathomable things the human body can do, one of whom may have gotten kind of emotional about it.)

Litman: Wow. You just revealed some true bona fides. I’m jealous. Last summer I was in Las Vegas and considered seeing the JabbaWockeeZ show, but determined it was just too expensive at $100 per ticket. I’m obviously not quite as committed to the franchise as you are, which may also explain why I’m so quick to deride it while you remain impressively enthusiastic.

All I’m saying is that I want Step Up to get back to its roots. I completely agree that we need more scenes of how these epic, choreographed routines come together. There was pure magic in nos. 1 and 2 when we watched Andie and Chase and Tyler and Nora fall in love as they rehearsed. Love is work and so is dance. These ideas can coexist. The writers of the inevitable (hopefully?) Step Up 6 need to be reminded of this. And since you mentioned So You Think You Can Dance, shouldn’t the next Step Up be about trying to get cast on that show or its functional equivalent? Who wouldn’t go see that?

Ariano: I think we are on opposite sides of a divide! I generally find the duet dance bits boring, so if Step Up 6 turned into a bunch of partner dances … well, I would still go. But I’d be bored. That said, I don’t know how many more premises there are for a heterogeneous group of dancers to come together to form an unlikely crew, and how many more goals they will have to work to achieve. We’ve already had “The bank is going to foreclose on our crib,” “Our dancing can take down capitalism and then give us a sick opportunity to sell out,” and “Budget Lady Gaga gave us a show in Vegas”; maybe all that’s left is “We could be the first legit dance crew on Mars!” … which I would also watch.

Anyway: Step Up All In is fine, but it’s not essential. There’s nothing as mind-blowing as the water dance from 3D or as witty as the prank from The Streets, and none of the movies has ever matched the love story of the original, particularly since it ended in legit TLA, with Tatum and Jenna Dewan getting married IRL! And if the six other people in the theater with us Saturday were anything to go by, the target audience for the series may have moved on to teen dystopias; AMC showed trailers for three different ones before All In started.

But! As Pam noted last night, maybe the old-school Bobby Brown number you mentioned earlier is a sign that the producers behind these movies know that kids aren’t watching them anymore but thirtysomethings still like them. And if Step Up 6 is just a feature-length montage of different combinations of dancers doing snippets of choreography to a soundtrack of late ’80s and ’90s hits, I’ll be pretty psyched. I won’t even mind boring Sean coming back if he comes with a routine set to “Bust a Move.”