On the Step Up Movies, Our Best Contemporary Musicals

step up all in

As Transformers 4 inches toward a franchise-low domestic total (let’s not think too much about the billion-plus it’s made worldwide), it’s important to note that no matter how mega-successful a movie franchise is, making more than three directly related installments is a dicey proposition. The ones that survive into the realm of four, five, six, or more, have to be a little smaller in scale: slasher movies, niche B-pictures like the Resident Evil and Underworld movies, and the Step Up series of sequential dance-offs. The fifth Step Up movie, Step Up: All In, came out last weekend. Most modern series that make it to a Part 5 have a long-running book series to back them up or at least to be stretched into an extra movie at the end of the road. And then they end.

In fact, the only currently operating franchise with more entries (discounting the interrelated Marvel trilogies and trilogies-to-be, or the similarly related but not always directly sequelizing X-Men movies) is the anomalous Fast and Furious series, which has six, with a seventh due out next spring. Fast Five provided a late-breaking injection of energy to the series by picking and choosing from various sequels, even the less-beloved ones, for an all-star line-up—an obvious model for Step Up: All In.

Their Part 5 doesn’t have the money to add the Rock, but they can certainly afford a low-rent version of the Fast Five strategy, because of the many actors to appear in Step Up movies over the past eight years, only Channing Tatum has ever really gone anywhere—and he starred in the first/worst entry back in 2006. Few if any other Step Up stars have gone on to work with Steven Soderbergh; until now, they’ve barely gone on to work on other Step Up movies. The second and best entry, Step Up 2: The Streets, introduced Andie (Briana Evigan), cousin to Tatum’s character (Tatum dutifully put in a still-pre-megafame cameo) and a new crew of art-school dancing teenagers, including Moose (Adam G. Sevani), a goofball with a reedy voice and moppy hair, who then spun off into a lead of Step Up 3D, a close competitor for best-of-series. His involvement in Step Up Revolution was limited to a crowd-pleasing cameo in its finale, much like the Vin Diesel post-credits scene in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.

But Moose returns in Step Up: All In. Director Trish Sie (brother of OK Go’s Damian Kulash and director/choreographer of the band’s dance-centric videos for “A Million Ways” and “Here It Goes Again,” the latter better-known as That Treadmill Video) seems to realize that he’s the closest thing the series has to a breakout star, because she introduces him as many times as possible: a dramatic feet-first reveal early plus a dramatic return late plus every time he jumps into a big dance number to much applause (at least from me and the people who went with me to see Step Up 5).

All In teams Moose, Andie, and Sean (Ryan Guzman), who I deduced from context clues was the main character of Step Up Revolution, a movie I have, I assure you, seen in its entirety. He’s the nominal main character this time, too, but his story is bare-bones even for a dance musical. The set-up, though, actually engages with the ridiculous finale of Revolution, in which a dance crew known as the Mob spent the entire movie fighting a giant corporation for control of a waterfront community, won, and then were rewarded with the opportunity to appear in a commercial for Nike. The other Step Up sequels tend to pivot to new characters when they begin, but this one picks up with members of the Mob running out of their ill-gotten Nike money and going on humiliating auditions for more ads and music videos. It turns out that making a day-to-day living as a dancer is not so easy, no matter how many high-stakes dance battles you’ve won. This being a Step Up movie, the solution to this problem is still somehow a high-stakes dance battle and a warmed-over romance, but the movie at least (intentionally or not) rebukes the easy out offered by Revolution.

All In sidesteps the mistakes of its predecessor in other ways, too. The third and fourth movies both indulged in too many music-video-style shutter-speed fuck-arounds—showy camera tricks that actually made the dancers look faker than they probably were on-set. Sie, a first-time director, favors set-ups like her OK Go videos, with longer takes that are too fixed and old-timey to announce themselves (a showier single-take dance sequence in Step Up 3D remains a series-best; I watch it every few months to cheer myself up). Many of the Step Up performances happen in front of a token onscreen audience, and while there’s a bit of that in All In, several scenes obliterate any notion of an in-movie audience and essentially have the dancers performing straight to the movie camera: the first dance-off, for example, takes place in a bar where almost everyone else in the room seems to have joined up with the opposing dance crew. The framing turns everything into a stage set.

That opposing dance crew from the bar humiliates the most of the Mob into high-tailing it back to Miami while Sean stays in Los Angeles. Cue Moose, ever the mensch (at least after his flirtation with arrogance per the character arc requirements of Step Up 3D), who gives him a menial job and a place to stay at his grandparents’ dance studio. Then Sean Googles “Los Angeles dancer jobs help me help me” or something, and the first result is about a VH1 competition whose winner will be awarded a three-year Las Vegas residency. You start to understand where Sean’s share of the prize money may have gone when it’s taken him literally months to Google “dancer jobs.” Or maybe he tried this search before, but mostly came up with empty Yahoo! Answers pages.

Anyway, Sean needs a crew to enter this competition, so he recruits Moose who recruits Andie and then they all recruit bit players from past Step Up movies, though Andie’s super-famous cousin is notably absent, like when older siblings graduate on Degrassi. This is a good, unobtrusive plot in the sense that it gives the movie an excuse to mount a ridiculously complicated horror-themed entry video; to compete in a dance-off set in a Vegas boxing ring; to excuse if not explain many ridiculous costume changes; and to generally make the Stepverse seem like a delightful place to hang out. I can even forgive the relationship that develops between Andie and Sean—who have all the spontaneous romance of a default setting and whose team-up makes the movie resemble an intra-series dating service—because it allows for a more intimate dance number set on an old carnival ride, a highlight on par with the best of the previous movies. All In also offers a greater musical range than its predecessors. The recent Step Ups tended to favor hip-hop remixed to sound like 1997 electronica fed through a phone line in a videogame, which means the fifth movie—which uses of an old N.E.RD. song, Bobby Brown’s “Every Little Step” (for the carnival ride scene), a “Gangsta’s Paradise” remix, and (of course) a new OK Go tune—counts as an eclectic mix tape.

Sie’s music choices and dance choreography are a lot of fun, but her dialogue choreography is confusingly lacking in rhythm. Characters seem to talk to each other at half-speed, and the editing of even the most perfunctory, obligatory scenes is weirdly drawn out, like the filmmakers shot on film (they didn’t) and misunderstood how much leader they needed. Even stranger, Step Up 2: The Streets featured much easier, more relaxed chemistry between some of the same actors, even though many of them get more screen time in the newer film. The Fast and Furious crew struck sparks off of each other (and the Rock, presumably because he is made of granite) when they all teamed up; the characters in Step Up: All In fumble around. The movie’s dumbness about human interaction is sometimes sweet and even endearing, but it is still kind of dumb.

That’s where the series departs from its ancestors of the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers ilk. In many ways, the Step Up movies are the modern versions of the old-fashioned unpretentious movie musical; at their best, they’re certainly more joyful about the musical form than the frantic awards bait of Rob Marshall or the self-conscious (and often abysmally directed) “fun” of the recent jukebox crop—and without the lumbering megaproduction trappings of either. But instead of hanging their smaller-scale appeal on individuals like Astaire and Rogers, these movies star the Step Up brand first and humans a distant second. Sevani and Evigan both have their charms, and it’s a pleasure to see them again, but they’re only stars in the world of Step Up. Hell, this movie barely knows what to do with them when they’re not in aggressive motion.

There’s actually something charming about the collectivism of this series—the way that Sean is mostly the lead of this one, but Moose becomes co-lead when he’s on screen, then defers that role to Andie when she returns, while popping back up occasionally so we can check in on his own barely-developed subplot. In that storyline, Alyson Stoner’s Camille, the Jordana Brewster of the series, gets to show near-endless encouragement and patience while Moose does the Step Up equivalent of squealing-tire heists, which is to say: performing in last-minute ultra-competitive dance-offs with little to no cash purse. Yet the movie does prompt Camille and Moose to have honest discussions about the place of dance in their lives, and while the outcome is a little on the vague side (owing to the movie’s general inability to depict human speech), it seems to embrace a kind of dance pluralism: being a dancer doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing ride-or-die choice. This installment also makes its inclusiveness more explicit via the introduction Moose’s Russian grandparents: Step Up is a multi-racial community of hard-working immigrants! (Though given that, it would be nice to see some gay characters in this world.)

It would be great, of course, if the more inventive dance set pieces of the last three Step Up could be fused with the slightly grittier camaraderie of Step Up 2: The Streets—maybe even, dare to dream, in service of story that isn’t re-assembled from scattered pages of the dance crew movie handbook. It doesn’t have to be a complicated plot, mind—Astaire and Rogers didn’t have those. Just something that better harnesses the energy of these young performers, currently grasping for laugh lines and emotional epiphanies in between the actual emotional content of these movies, which are always the dances (as they must be). Step Up 5 wiped out at the box office last weekend, so it may be a moot point. But I hope, if we are denied a theatrical release of Step Up: Six It to the Man, that another dance series takes up its unassuming, inclusive mantle.

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