If you're searching for a decent dance experience in "Shall We Dance," which opened Friday and stars Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon and Jennifer Lopez, you're looking in the wrong place. This shouldn't come as a huge surprise: Over the last several decades, Hollywood seems to have lost the ability to capture dance on the big screen with any degree of skill and expressiveness. Perhaps it's the box office power of celebrity faces over gifted gams. Whatever the reason, it's bad for dance fans.
"Shall We Dance" is symptomatic of the dumbing-down of dance in movies. The film starts out with a lovely idea: dancing as a tonic for a routine existence. This was also the impetus behind the Japanese film of the same title that served as a blueprint for the Gere flick. Where this "Shall We Dance" loses its way with an emphasis on desperate-seeming sizzle, the original was a revelation, a truthful and tender movie about the heroics of stepping out of one's shell to experience joy. The American version purports to be about the seduction of ballroom dancing, but its shadowy shots of dance instructor J.Lo's prodigious curves and her stern commands to enthralled student Gere to rumba with his partner "as if you're going to have your way with her right here on the floor" puts little of that discipline's sweep and grandeur on view.
When the dancing feels as essential as breathing: that's the hallmark of the best dance movies. Of course, trained professional dancers help, too, but don't expect to see many of those now that the 2002 screen version of "Chicago," also starring Gere, has proved that celebrity casting and busy editing can cover for the absence of . . . an actual musical. Of course, great dance films need great music, too. Plot, admittedly, is less crucial, as some of the most inspiring dance scenes in movie history appear within so-so story lines.
These criteria exclude many dance movies of recent decades, the "Dirty Dancings" and "Flashdances" -- remember Jennifer Beals's dance double in the audition scene? -- though plenty of them are good fun to watch. But their appeal doesn't leave the long-lasting burn of, say, 1961's "West Side Story." Talk about your great music: Leonard Bernstein produced a full-bodied symphonic swell spiked with the nervousness, tension and disorganized emotions of youth, and to listen to it is to truly feel something about life at that time in New York City.
Jerome Robbins captured this in his choreography, though he didn't have the control over the film that he had enjoyed with the Broadway musical. A renowned perfectionist, Robbins was fired halfway through the film's production -- his insistence on repeated takes had blown the budget. However, the opening "prologue" is pure Robbins, and pure genius: eleven minutes of place, mood, character and theme evoked in a relentlessly churning sequence that is both a stylized ballet and a natural outgrowth of the basketball court on which it begins.
As with other great dance films, "West Side Story" incorporates dancing and singing into the plot as a natural means of expression, a way to tell a story. Of course, the ace at telling an on-screen story in movement was Fred Astaire. Any of the 10 movies he made with Ginger Rogers can easily figure among the best dance films. But the second picture they made together, "The Gay Divorcee," is particularly fine.
You have to wait through many thin scenes for the dancing in this 1934 film, but it's well worth it. Astaire's solos -- one on a dance floor, one all across the living room furniture -- astonish in their jazz-driven musicality. Then there is the mesmerizing, unforced poetry of his duet with Rogers to the gentle swell of "Night and Day," a ballad of attraction and resistance, pursuit and capture, described in the inclination of a torso and the sway of a spine. The relationship between Astaire and Rogers gains dimensions in the dancing in a way that no script could match.
It's not poetry but sheer magnitude of dancing that makes "Stormy Weather" (1943) a wonderful ride, with plenty of screen time for the "educated feet" of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, as well as Cab Calloway's animated band-leading and the supple vocals of Lena Horne. In a singularly exhilarating display, the Nicholas Brothers tap dance over and around the orchestra, nimbly dodging the musicians, skittering across a piano and finally surging down an outsize flight of stairs in a sophisticated game of leapfrog, landing each jump cleanly in the splits.
You can't talk about dance on-screen without mentioning Gene Kelly or Judy Garland. "Summer Stock" (1950), their last film together, was also Garland's last film for MGM, and it documents her declining health with a few distracted dialogue moments and an obvious weight gain. Her absences from the set resulted in the two stars mostly dancing separately, but in doing so they bequeath a couple of standout performances to movie-musical history. In Kelly's inimitable way, he choreographed a stunningly inventive solo in a barn, playing with the rhythms he coaxes out of a creaking floorboard and rustling newspapers. And in her unforgettable finale "Get Happy," Garland showed how singing and dancing can transform a person. A noticeably slimmer Garland (the sequence was shot months after the rest of the movie) in a sexy little tuxedo jacket and a perfectly tilted fedora preaches the gospel of redemption as it has never before been preached, blending mambo hips with a bluesy swagger and crisp control. Garland manages to mix signals brilliantly here: Get ready for judgment day, but while you're at it, why not tango on the dark side?
A dance movie has the power to transport you away from reality, but a great dance movie can also transform reality. The best ones pull ordinary folks out of their dreary drudgery and plunge them into a world of rhythm and emotional abandon. This is the engine that drives Kelly's magnificent title number in 1952's "Singin' in the Rain," and, almost three decades later, Steve Martin's Depression-era escapade "Pennies From Heaven" (with an electrifying Bernadette Peters and Christopher Walken in a striptease). Watch this kind of Everyman-turned-song-and-dance-man movie, and the sense of possibility in the daily routine follows you long afterward. You hear a colleague clicking down the stairs as you're walking up and you start imagining a stair-dance routine like Robinson and Shirley Temple rattled off in "The Little Colonel." You notice other women in your office also wearing black pantsuits, and you wonder what you'd all look like in a chorus line, with perfect posture, and fedoras.
What you take away from a truly glorious dance film is a dream -- but try as it might, Hollywood has forgotten how to deliver one.