ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
If you want to see some dancing but you can't wait for Beyonce's tour to start, you might check out the new movie, "Stomp the Yard." It's opening in theatres today. It's about a young man who leaves Los Angeles to go to a historically black college, and gets caught up in its step dancing rivalries. Step has been a tradition in black fraternities and sororities for decades.
Critic Bob Mondello says the movie "Stomp the Yard" also owes a debt to a Hollywood tradition: the image of the dancing tough guy.
BOB MONDELLO: At the beginning of "Stomp the Yard," some very scary looking guys are hurling themselves with each other in a nightclub. Their moves are aggressive, threatening, ferocious, and always stop just short at the glowering guys they're aimed at. It turns out it's a competition.
Now, watching these young men dancing, and especially after one of them is killed a few moments later in a rumble, I couldn't help thinking of some other gang members dancing on screen a half century ago. They called themselves Jets and Sharks, and their music was also percussive, but in a jazzy, symphonic way.
(Soundbite of song, "The Jet Song")
Unidentified Group: (Singing) We're drawin' the line, so keep your noses hidden! We're hangin' a sign, says Visitors forbidden. And we ain't kiddin'!
MONDELLO: Though the gang members in "West Side Story," now looks sweetly clean cut, back then, they seemed pretty tough, not at all like a Fred Astaire. "Tough Guys Don't Dance," claimed Norman Mailer, and now, a book title. But every generation in Hollywood wants to at least let them try. The trick is finding a reason. In the 1940s studios did it through casting, taking machine gun totting Jimmy Cagney and turning him into machine-gun-tapping George M. Cohan.
(Soundbite of tap dancing to "Give My Regards To Broadway")
Of course, in "Yankee Doodle Dandy," Cagney wasn't actually playing a tough guy. And if he'd done it a few more times, his gangster credentials would have lapsed. Happily, once the ice was broken, Hollywood had no problem just letting gangsters dance as gangsters in "Guys and Dolls," for instance.
(Soundbite of song, "Luck Be a Lady")
Unidentified Group #2: (Singing) Luck be a lady tonight. Luck be a lady tonight. Luck if you've ever been a lady to begin with. Luck be a lady tonight.
MONDELLO: In the '50s, everyone danced in the movies so tough guys didn't have to make excuses. There were dancing cowpokes in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," dancing convicts in "Jail House Rock," even a dancing Asian dictator in the "King and I." But after movie musicals went out of fashion in the 1960s, producers had to come up with new reasons for their macho stars to stomp. They got pretty clever about it, turning dance into a competitive sport in "Saturday Night Fever," with John Travolta working the disco the way Rocky worked the ring.
(Soundbite of song, "Night Fever")
BEE GEES (Singing Group): (Singing) Dancing, yeah.
MONDELLO: Then, they set rebellious teenagers to defying puritanical talent fathers by dancing.
(Soundbite of song, "Footloose")
KENNY LOGGINS (Singer): (Singing) Now I gotta cut loose, footloose. Kick off your Sunday shoes.
MONDELLO: But after Michael Jackson's music video, "Beat It" pushed this notion about as far as it could go, the variations got pretty lame. At which point, Hollywood seeded the dance floor to Hong Kong for a bit, as martial arts movies got more and more choreographed.
(Soundbite of a martial arts movie clip)
MONDELLO: Eventually, these guys weren't so much involved in combat as in aerial ballets flying on wires and tiptoeing across treetops. And this form too seemed to be running its course. But it had added something to the mix, something that ballet companies always push in their advertising, muscles on display. The "Footloose" generation's skinny, teen rebels had been replaced by shirtless, macho fighters who looked dangerous.
And that aesthetic also drives the hotshot-versus-the-group movies that have come along in the last couple of years: "Drumline," about showboating recruit to a marching band; and now "Stomp the Yard," about a cocky, young stepper who brings urban moves to a form he finds too tame. The plots maybe straight out of those college musical that used to star June Allyson and Peter Lawford, but they sure looked different - shot in flash-cut, music-video-style with lots of editing tricks.
The choreographed, challenges, and insults looked ferocious. And I'm - why shouldn't they? Hollywood's been choreographing violence since Jimmy Cagney was dying in bullet ballets, car chases, boxing matches, armies charging down hillsides, starships hurdling through space - tough guys do dance. They've always dance with props - as long as it's dirty dancing. It's just cleaner when it's just with attitude.
I'm Bob Mondello.
(Soundbite of music)
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