‘Hip Hop Cinema’ is a series of columns delving into the history of hip hop culture in cinema and television.
Throw a rock in a dvd store and you’ll probably hit an ‘urban’ dance movie. With films like ‘Step Up’ and ‘You Got Served’, break-dancing saw a second popular resurgence in mainstream film. But how should we really feel about this mutated sub-genre which sullies the good name of hip hop?
In broad terms, ‘Urban-dance’ movies deliver a very simple wish fulfilment product. Much like the films in the Fast and the Furious franchise, 1960s beach-party movies, or pornography, they deliver the minimum amount of dramatic investment requirement to string together a sequence of trailer-friendly money shots. It’s the briskly edited and physically impressive dance sequences which form the spine of these films.
However, the style of dance which they present didn’t really exist prior. Breakdance competitions have of course long featured choreographed routines, but never in the music-video style which is favoured in these films. It’s the combination of slick, practiced pop-dancing with the appearance of spontaneity which these films attempt to capture and sell. The affectation of ‘urban’ and ‘poor’ through the lens of the the high gloss of Hollywood. It’s a poor bastard child of hip hop which many of us would like to disown, but like the inquisitive child knocking at our door years later, its time for us to take responsibility and fess-up to this unwanted offspring.
Most of the plotlines in these movies are eerily similar. Sassy street-smart outsider teen uses passion for urban dance to escape from social and economic boundaries. Cast an ethnically vague lead , throw her in a stuffy dance academy or college, add a forbidden romance, insert an antagonistic relative and a rival dance crew, and you’re pretty much done. And of course, the central conflict is resolved through a cathartic dance sequence at the big dance competition.
Of the nearly two dozen films in the sub-genre, their roots can be traced back to a trio of films which came out in close succession. ‘Centre Stage’ (2000), a financial bust, ‘Bring it On’ (2000), financially successful but too idiosyncratic to repeat, and ‘Save the Last Dance’ (2001), which still by far tops the earnings of every urban dance movie which would follow and is easily the most influential. Following close on its heels, Jessica Alba vehicle ‘Honey’ (2003) is released, and although utterly unmemorable, was a success which fuelled the growing sub-genre. In 2004, urban dance-competition movie ‘You Got Served’ is released, featuring a dull plot but some excellently filmed dance sequences. The overall tone and attitude of ‘You Got Served’, along with its inescapable catch-phrase, captured far more popular attention for the sub-genre than any before it, but also came to encapsulate everything that is easy (and fun) to mock about it, not least of which is the utterly self-serious approach of just about every movie in this list.
Around the same time (2005), popular television series ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ is launched, modelled heavily off of the ‘American Idol’ formula but focused on dance, particularly ‘urban’ forms. The franchise which would be picked up in 22 countries around the world, and its flagship series is currently in its 9th season, and for a brief period, everyday Americans could watch honest-to-god, unchoreographed, real life breakdancers on prime-time television (at least in the audition stages). Throughout its tenure, we’ve seen a veritable bargain bin full of urban dance movies released, including ‘Roll Bounce’ (2005), ‘Step Up’ (2006), ‘Take the Lead’ (2006), ‘Stomp the Yard’ (2007), ‘Save the Last Dance 2’ (2007), ‘How she Move’ (2007), ‘Step Up 2 the Streets’ (2008), ‘Fame‘ (2009), ‘Step up 3-d’ (2010), ‘You Got Served: Beat the World’ (2011), not counting many of the direct-to-dvd releases and a few more stragglers in development. To review each individually would be redundant.
To pick a common feature of these, (besides their diminishing box-office returns, indistinguishable aesthetic style, and dull plot lines), they’ve mostly managed to undo the damage wrought by the trashy breakdancing movies of the late 80s which made break-dancing disastrously uncool (and the butt of bad jokes) for the next ten years. If they’ve managed to make breakdancing (in this more populist and hyper-stylised form) exciting, popular and vital again, then power to them, but its just as likely that all they’ve done in the long run is make breaking appear dumb in an entirely new way. So, thanks for nothing I guess.
If I can in good conscience recommend any of these films, 2005’s ‘Roll Bounce’ is set in 1970s Chicago during the dynamic disco roller-rink period and is genuinely a pretty interesting watch. If, however, you want to immerse yourself in the deep end of this trashy pool, ‘Step Up 2 to the Streets’ (2008) is unintentionally hilarious, mind bogglingly preposterous, and the ideal bad-movie-night flick.