SHALL WE DANCE? Movies keep sneaking in those swing-and-song numbers

Slow, slow, quick, quick. That about measures the beat of the musical number’s return to film. The latest couple sashaying onto the dance floor is Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd in “The Object of My Affection.” Despite incompatible sexual proclivities, the two court one another within the rhythmic intimacy of the social dance.

Before them, Rupert Everett serenaded a discomfited Julia Roberts in the best Doris Day, Rock Hudson tradition for “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” Years of being disco skanks paid off for the blonde duo in a triumphant menage-a-trois dance finale at “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.”

The male-bonding “Swingers” helped jump-start the swing movement for a generation that may only have seen Gene Kelly in “Xanadu” or Fred Astaire posthumously forced to dance with a vacuum cleaner. Still coming up in the hot summer months is “Dance With Me, ” in which Cuban dancer Chayanne comes to Houston’s Latin music scene and ignites a dance studio and its instructor Vanessa L. Williams. Hollywood industry has long intoned of the musical’s demise, so this fitful resurgence of the musical number is a sly, secret indulgence.

“It snuck in, ” agrees UC-Berkeley film and rhetoric professor Linda Williams. Musicals are considered “box-office poison, but the pleasure of musicals are very real and audiences have never stopped enjoying them. It’s a funny perception that people will not pay to go see a musical.”

Of course, resuscitation efforts like Disney’s misbegotten “Newsies” (1992) only reinforced that thinking. And television couldn’t support Steven Bochco’s “Cop Rock, ” that unholy vision of street-smart cops breaking out into little ditties. Still, audiences have enjoyed a musical number here and there, as long as it makes contextual sense, as in “Flashdance” (1983) and “Dirty Dancing” (1987) (more music videos than true musicals).

“What this generation objects to is the violation of the realism of the film, ” Williams says. The spectacle of spontaneous song-and-dance interrupting a conversation or a stroll jarred an increasingly cynical audience. So for the past two decades, audiences have had few outlets to indulge in pure physical expression. One outlet is discussed in Williams’ book “Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the Frenzy of the Visible” (UC Press, $15.95), which proposes a fascinating parallel between the structure of musicals and pornography and the shared visceral viewer enjoyment of each genre.

A tad more mainstream outlet has been action blockbusters. Author Richard Barrios briefly mentions this in his book of the early musicals, “A Song in the Dark” (Oxford University Press, Inc., $21.95).

The “special area of escapism” that musicals occupied was usurped by television and “on the big screen, by action pictures that use comic strip violence to create brutal latter-day production numbers.'” Consider how violence gained its own aesthetic in the bloodied works by directors like Sam Peckinpah. Critics described the gunplay choreography in Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) as a “ballet of death.”

However, audiences even lost that outlet during the 1980s, when the body grotesque dwarfed the body graceful. A glistening Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger flexed before pulping each combatant. The hero, points out British film theorist Yvonne Tasker in “Spectacular Bodies” (Routledge Press, $17.95), had mutated into a “top-heavy, almost statuesque, figure of the body builder who essentially strikes a pose within an action narrative.”

No wonder the craving for human grace under rapid fire found expression in the underground clamor for Hong Kong action cinema. People preferred Chow Yun Fat or Michelle Yeoh’s sinewy elegance over Clint Eastwood squinting.

Schwarzenegger could crush his opponents by sitting on them, but a bicep ripple hardly compared to the jaw-dropping antics of a Jackie Chan. And Chan, a student of the American silent film, is more of an old-fashioned Hollywood star than today’s cosseted leading man. Harold Lloyd or Douglas Fairbanks never used a stuntman, and Chan and his brethren revived this daring athleticism for a new generation.

While Hong Kong-style choreography has revived today’s Hollywood action sequences, perhaps the success of musically inclined imports might have encouraged the return to our lyrical past. Australia ran in screaming with “Strictly Ballroom.” “Muriel’s Wedding” and “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, ” had everyone humming Abba tunes. Japan’s hilarious “Shall We Dance?” brought dance to a beginner level. Even Britain’s “The Full Monty” merited best picture contention for its burlesque revival with a disco reverb.

Of course, these newcomers don’t conform to the true musical genre, points out UC-Berkeley professor Marilyn Fabe, who taught a film class on musicals. The soft shoe or ballad must propel the actual story line, and not be practice sequences. The operatic “Evita” doesn’t qualify because it “doesn’t have that tension between music and narrative plot.” One that fulfills the requirements is the movie that inspired Fabe’s class, Woody Allen’s “Everybody Says I Love You.”

Where the true musical has flourished can be summed up in one word: animation. Disney especially parlayed the classic American art form in “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King” and earned huge amounts of money in box office, soundtracks and merchandising. Even the less successful “Hunchback of Notre Dame” swung in and out of theaters clutching about $150 million, ranking second only behind “Independence Day” in 1996 profits.

Besides, back in the real world of make-believe, the song-and-dance is tongue in cheek. After all, Paul Rudd (“Object of My Affection”) and Rupert Everett (“My Best Friend’s Wedding”) adored their pals but preferred different types of partners. Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino of “Romy and Michelle’ always made sure to dance with each other, as did the unemployed boys in “The Full Monty.” And in “The First Wives Club, ” the big production number with Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton was no romantic ballad but a song of independence.

Today’s modern number mocks the conventions of yesteryear while wallowing in nostalgia. For lovers of the musicals, that works out just fine. People can laugh all they want, as long as they can indulge in their Busby Berkeley fantasies when the theater lights go out.

This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times

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