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The best overall Step Up entry is probably Step Up 2 the Streets—it lucks into the most engaging young ensemble of the lot—but in terms of musical sequences, the series reaches its pinnacle in Step Up 3, with a two-minute take of playful flirt-dancing on the streets of New York (see a bootlegged clip here). It's not one of the franchise's most acrobatic numbers, but, like the best old musicals, it says more in a two-minute take than so much dialogue that could take up the same amount of screentime.
Nothing in Step Up Revolution matches that filmmaking prowess or sheer adorability. The conceit is that the movie's dance crew makes performance and eventually protest art out of flash mob and music video parts, staging improbable scenes like bits of art coming alive at a museum, or stopping traffic to dance on brightly colored cars. More often than not, they're a kick to watch, even though the characters are relatively bland and, owing to the dance numbers' publicness, the movie contains far more dopey reaction shots than its predecessors, cutting into its eclectic displays.
The speed of the editing, though, is not an issue. The knee-jerk, often baseless complaint about modern musicals has to do with the speed of cutting, which to me seems almost entirely irrelevant; I no more watch a film musical to see perfectly still shots of dancers than I watch live theater to be wowed by expert cross-cutting. If anything took me out of Revolution's acrobatic and often well-designed dance sequences, it was the series habit of adjusting frame-rate, here blown into an outright tic. It makes the dancers look otherworldly and digitally tweaked and, worse, all kind of similar. That street scene in Step Up 3 varies in tempo from every other scene in the movie; almost everything in Step Up Revolution looks like a hyperkinetic and slightly over-processed music video. The best it can do in terms of varying its dance numbers is have one character perform a semi-steamy, mostly underwhelming recital dance with her new boyfriend—back to the same old dance-as-passion clichés. (At least no one does the Lambada!)
But even operating below its peak potential, this summer's low-budget dancesploitation B-movie has several musical sequences that run rings around what Adam Shankman was able to cook up with a half-dozen stars and many millions of dollars in Rock of Ages. For that matter, the average Step Up number beats the would-be showstoppers from most of Hollywood's Broadway adaptations, and helps to prove that the filmmaking behind Rock of Ages, Mamma Mia, and the like really does verge on outright incompetence, not just genial harmlessness.
Now that we've experienced a decade-long bumper crop of dance musicals and they've had their first major Broadway translation (as well as a brainy Soderbergh treatment; this summer's surprise hit Magic Mike plays a bit like a dance musical filtered through Soderbergh's genre-consciousness), it would be great to see the scrappiness of a Step Up production applied to a proper musical, without pirouetting around the genre, afraid of its old-fashioned trappings (while still indulging in deeply old-fashioned non-musical boilerplate storytelling). So far, though, this generation of movie-musicals keeps song and dance sequestered in separate corners; this fall, for example, brings an a capella competition musical, Pitch Perfect. Could this infinite supply of fresh-faced singers and dancers maybe join forces for an actual musical now? (Glee doesn't count.) I hope it doesn't take Bring It On: The Musical making the full circle journey back to the screen to get filmmakers to realize they've been making musicals all along. It wouldn't hurt to go ahead and admit it.