A movie genre is among very important characteristics for several reasons: it allows determining the target audience, it helps define the tools, with the help of which the key messages will be conveyed, and it sets specific expectations. However, a genre as a part of movie characteristics is also very limiting; it offers a set of specific tools and provides little wiggle room for experiments. Experimenting with new tools may be very dangerous for the movie reception, yet at the same time, it may appear very rewarding.
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Although Step Up is traditionally defined as a musical, it should rather be viewed as a traditional teenage drama, since it does not comply with the key diegetic principles of Altman’s model, leaving such crucial elements as character development, combination of diegetic music and a well-written dialogue (semantics), creating an inconsistency of the plot lie and failure to create links between dialogues and diegetic music (syntax).
One could make a very slim argument that Step Up belongs to the genre of a dance movie. Indeed, the film features a range of choreographic elements that cannot be seen in any other show and, therefore, are unique. Leaving aside the fact that the very existence of the “dance film” as a movie genre is very questionable, one must add, though, that in a dance movie, a specific “dance philosophy” must exist.
In Woodstock, for example, is viewed as a musical, yet has a range of philosophical layers underneath its dance theme, starting from social movements (hippies) to political contexts (problems of the economy) (Grant 103). Thus, music was explored through social issues. The music was an integral part of the movie; it was the director’s basic means of artistic expression – the music was the lead actor. Step Up never does anything like that – the music serves as a filer with accidental hints at the possible “depth.”
How the music dissolves is beyond traditional – in most cases, the music is merely toned down so that an abrupt sound, like a sound of the door of a car being slammed at the beginning of the movie (Step Up 00:02:21). The musical numbers bar no diegetic motivation whatsoever – the audience suddenly hears the sound of a boom box and a rap song in a ballet room” “Hi” (Step Up 00:24:04); similar rhythm emerges once the lead characters start training and dissolves just as abruptly as the rival enters the room (Step Up 00:20:45).
Though these tricks may seem original at first, they get old very soon and wear out their welcome very quickly. Arguably, one could suggest that the music in the movie serves as an allegory for the emotional struggle and the split between different social classes.
In the first two thirds of the movie, it seems that music as the tool for analyzing the stratification of the American society is the angle that the director is going with – the protagonists are defined by the musical styles that they have chosen, ballet being the metaphor for the feminine “yin” of Nora, and breakdance is the representation of a rougher, more defiant and boisterous nature of Tyler: “‘I asked you to bring tights.’ ‘Do I look like I own tights?’” (Step Up 00:28:39).
A bit clichéd, this approach to setting the characters seems very reasonable. What Grant called “the traditional classical hierarchy of image over sound” (Grant 109) is represented clearly in the movie, whereas in a musical, the image should be in the shadow, and the music must be in the limelight (Grant 107). In would be wrong to claim that in Step Up, music exists outside the plot, yet how they are connected is far too clichéd and trite.
Speaking of which, the Altman’s model, which the concept of “image over sound” belongs to, shows perfectly what makes Step Up fail to be a musical as much as it fails to be a unique young adult drama. Apart from music serving little to no purpose and the sound failing to be a “mixture of diegetic music and dialogue” (Grant 110), the fact that the narrative and the music develop independently should be mentioned. To the director’s credit, some of the elements included in Altman’s model are represented in the movie.
For instance, some of the syntax components, such as the gender duality, are in their places. The narrative strategy is also there. The plot, however, throws the viewer from the couple to the competition (which follows Altman’s model) to major social dilemmas, such as street violence, thus, destroying the parallelism of the plot. The music also rarely serves as a means to express emotional strain and is rather used as filler. The same cannot be said about the semantics of the movie: only the length is proper.
The director failed at offering a new way of looking at a romantic couple in society, creating a bunch of stock scenes instead. The acting leaves much to be desired as well: in the key scenes, the actors fail to create an illusion of discrete emotions. For example, when Andrew, Nora’s dance partner, explains why he cannot be her dance partner, his monotone can break glass: “Doctor says I have to stay off of it. I’m sorry” (Step Up 00:21:12).
As it has been stressed above, the clichéd approach towards writing the characters is beyond obnoxious in Step Up, and the lack of diegetic elements in the movie does not make the situation any better. The movie establishes that the characters have nothing in common by throwing a contrast rap song and a ballet performance into the movie; however, by a stroke of luck, Tyler becomes Nora’s partner.
They share a couple of emotionless lines: “Fine. Well, that’s the way it is, so…” (Step Up 00:32:35) and decide that they like each other: “You know, that must mean that you, um… really, really like him” (Step Up 00:33:53). Music helps them realize their similarities, and they decide to become dancers. The audience hardly gets to know them.
They never say, “I like this” or “I feel this”; all the audience knows about them is that they like dancing. They never learn anything at the end of the movie, and even at the end, and they hardly seem to care about it, which makes the audience care about the movie even less.
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It could be assumed that the creators of Step Up were trying to conjure the film that could be similar to Grease or Sweethearts, with their formulaic alternation between sexes (Grant 108). More to the point, as Nora and Tyler continue training their dancing, they start developing a strong friendship, which is shown brilliantly through the scenes of Tyler learning ballet. As a means to show the philosophy of music as the unification of the entire world, all races, and religious confessions, this was perfect – a bit naïve, but perfect.
Unfortunately, in the final third of the move, the plot starts conflicting with this idea. The unneeded conflict with Brett, Nora’s ex-boyfriend, the scene of Skinny, Tyler’s brother, being shot, and the movie constantly reminding the audience of rivalry between Tyler and Brett eradicate the metaphor, leaving the audience completely sure that they have just watched another corny teenage drama.
Therefore, the genre of the movie still does not drift any centimeter away from the traditional clichés of a teen drama. In a more general sense, it can be considered a drama, yet the plot of the movie is too narrow, and the characters are way too shallow for the movie to escape the realm of a teen or, at the very most, young adult drama. The “lasting fit” (Altman 14) is not obtained in the movie.
The background of the movie also sheds some light on the director’s weird choices. Released in 2006, it came out on the heels of the High School Musical, which appeared in the theaters the same year. Therefore, Step Up can be seen as an attempt to cash in on a popular genre. However, Step Up does not reach the level of a musical – it still wallows in the standard set of clichés for a teenage drama, with several musical elements to back it up.
Though Step Up meets the basic requirements of a standard young adult drama movie, it is still a failure, since it does not add anything new to it. The movie is nothing but a “diet” version of the traditional drama, with all crucial elements being washed down to pointless trivial. The idea of representing teenage life through dance is not bad – there is a lot to explore and express. The crime of the director is not that the movie is corny, but that nothing looks like anyone tries to make movie good.
Altman, Rick. “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre.” Cinema Journal 23.3 (1984), 6–18. Print.
Grant, Barry Keith. Film Genre Reader IV. Austin, TX: University of Texas. 2012. Print.
Step Up. Dir. Anne Fletcher. Perf. Channing Tatum, Jenna Dwan and Damaine Radcliff. Buena Vista Pictures, 2006. Film.