Monday, August 6, 2012

The Legacy of Bring It On, from Screen to Stage to Step Up

Posted By on Mon, Aug 6, 2012 at 12:00 PM

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Bring It On didn't seem like it'd become a seminal movie when it was released late in the summer of 2000. Peyton Reed's cheerleading comedy became a surprise hit, but its value as a perennial, comfort-food rewatch didn't emerge until, well, people had the chance to rewatch it. I saw it in theaters and liked it well enough; I saw it again a few months later at my college's film series, and liked it more. I caught on cable a couple of times later, and eventually I bought the DVD. I suspect others had similar experiences, which is why the film has enjoyed such a substantial afterlife, with a series of direct-to-DVD movies and, now, a Broadway musical. I recently went to one of the final preview performances of the Broadway version (which officially opened August 1), and ran into Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of In the Heights and co-songwriter for this production (and a former college classmate of mine). We talked briefly about how we both remembered seeing the movie for the first time at a Destinta multiplex in Connecticut. It makes sense; in my head, every single person I went to college with has seen Bring It On at least once—if not several times.

Apart from the gratefulness that peppy mainstream movies with hilarious teenage girls tend to receive (see also Mean Girls, and I swear that Jennifer's Body will have its revival some day!), Bring It On may have been a satisfying experience for many of us because at a time when big-screen musicals were not particularly popular, it smuggled in that form under the guise of a dance movie—itself under the guise of a sports movie. Indeed, Kirsten Dunst's Torrance explains the athleticism of cheerleaders to a skeptic, and the movie has a charming running gag about how the Toros cheerleading squad has far greater acumen than the blundering football team it encourages. But despite the competitive nature, Bring It On is clearly a dance musical, with routines, choreography, and music. It's just music that no one in the movie actually performs.

Bringing Bring It On to the stage, then, feels like a natural extension of the movie: finally, on Broadway, it's allowed to embrace the full-throated musical-form it could only flirt with a decade ago. The stage version isn't directly adapted from Jessica Bendinger's screenplay; rather, it's a new story with a cheerleading milieu and racial dynamics, not unlike the direct-to-video franchise. Basically, in a sea of cutely cheesy DVDs, Bring It On: The Musical is the best Bring It On spin-off/tribute ever.

Abandoning the movie's story makes the musical feel fresh; what a relief not to endure another stage-show adaptation of a movie. Granted, there may not have been any rescuing the musical version of, say, Legally Blonde, but I did watch it with the sinking realization that I would have to sit through every worn-out beat of the movie's middling screenplay, recreated on a larger, louder scale, and without Reese Witherspoon. No such trepidation accompanied me at Bring It On; it's less saucy and more, well, theatrical than Reed's film, which caught Dunst at her most tenacious, with supporting toughness from Gabrielle Union and Eliza Dushku. It might have an earnest ballad or two too many for my tastes, especially when one takes the place of the movie's giddiest solo moment: Dunst rediscovering her love of cheerleading while bouncing on her bed to a song by her maybe-boyfriend Jesse Bradford (it was the year 2000; Jesse Bradford was a thing). But the stage show maintains the film's good-hearted inclusiveness, snappish bits of dialogue, and infectious energy; it also has live acts of cheerleading, with actual bodies getting tossed around for the show's big numbers. It's a hell of a lot of fun—as strong a film-to-musical adaptation as I've seen in years and years.

As Bring It On finally goes full musical, its spawn continue to play in a theater near you: last weekend saw the release of Step Up Revolution, the fourth entry in the gold standard of dance-movie franchises. The first Step Up (which helped to launch a then-wooden Channing Tatum onto an unlikely movie star path; later costars were not as lucky) is far more romance than dance musical, but its sequels follow a different, more energetic formula, mixing and matching the putting on of a show, the saving of a beloved institution, the winning of competitive dance matches, and the self-actualization of conflicted young people everywhere.

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Obviously, as with many older musicals, the narratives are not the point (tell me what happens in Swing Time besides singing, dancing, and you being delighted). Though no one in the Step Up series sings, many of the dances qualify as full-on production numbers, which may be Bring It On's on-screen legacy. There were, of course, scrappy groups of dancing kids before the cheerleading movie, but the athletic bent of Bring It On gave the genre a rah-rah boost, drawing it out of one-on-one dance-romance (ro-dance?) Dirty Dancing/Save the Last Dance/Step Up 1 mode and into splashier, more musical territory.

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 clich├ęs. (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.

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