Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Scenes We Love

From cinematical.com:

We have television to thank for a serious dance renaissance. TV shows like So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars have introduced a new generation to the joys of the samba, the waltz, and the quickstep, while High School Musical (and now, Glee) brought song-and-dance production numbers back into vogue. Suddenly it seems like the world's gone dance crazy. Of course, geeks like me, who grew up watching the great movie musicals, have been dance crazy for most of our lives.

On this week's episode of SYTYCD, show producer/judge Nigel Lythgoe lectured a pair of dancers about the importance of telling a story through choreography, instructing them that technical proficiency isn't enough --the audience wants to understand who the characters are, what the relationship is, and what they're trying to convey. Well, if he'd wanted to illustrate that concept, Lythgoe could do worse than to point his young contestants at 1953's The Band Wagon, starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. Directed by the great Vincente Minnelli, the musical tells the story of an aging hoofer who hopes to reinvigorate his career by starring in a hilariously awful musical interpretation of Faust, which turns out to be such a disaster that he and his comely co-star, along with the show's writers (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray), have to create an entirely new show on the fly to replace it.

The whole thing is a classic MGM-musical device -- the "let's put on a show!" plot, which allows for a number of disparate songs and dance sequences, from the comic ("Triplets") to the typically ambitious Astaire routines ("Shine On Your Shoes"). The major set piece of the new show is "Girl Hunt," a lengthy modern-ballet piece modeled on Mickey Spillane's 1950's detective fiction, starring Astaire as the private-eye and Charisse (who, by the way, Nigel Lythgoe danced with back in his chorus-boy days) as an irresistibly mysterious dame. It's the sort of supposed Broadway number at which MGM musicals excelled -- utterly impossible to stage in an actual theater, of course, but brilliantly entertaining on the big screen.

The entire sequence is pure joy to watch, and justly famous (not just because Michael Jackson used it as inspiration for his "Smooth Criminal" video, either.) In this too-short excerpt, Charisse is beyond stunning in a red sequin dress, with legs that go on for days -- be sure to notice how Astaire's gun comes to attention when she drapes herself across him. Better yet, rent the whole movie on DVD. There's not a moment of The Band Wagon that isn't magical.

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