Life & Liberty: Tapped-Out Musicals


The problem with Tap can be summed up in four words, which appear as one of the first lead-in credits in the film: "Improvography by Gregory Hines." Not choreography, mind you, but improvography—a pseudo-word coined, no doubt, to lend the film's dancing an air of artistry. Nice try.

Tap is the story of an ex-con who comes home after serving time for burglary, intending to win back the heart of his true love and the admiration of her young son while resisting the temptations of his former felonious life. He does it, of course. But in venerable musical fashion, the plot is a throwaway. Dance movies are made to showcase dancers. And at that task, director Nick Castle fails miserably.

He and Hines have managed to extract from their musical the one element crucial to the genre: fantasy. In this mistake, though, they are barely unique. Sometime in the mid-1960s, filmmakers took a previously serviceable concept—the musical about people doing a musical—and turned it into a cinematic obsession. From All That Jazz and Fame in the 1970s to this decade's Flashdance and A Chorus Line, big-budget dance movies have consistently featured characters who are simply performers either auditioning or rehearsing for a show, thereby providing opportunities for musical numbers.

Filmmakers evidently thought that modern audiences would no longer accept improbability—singing in the rain, dancing on the ceiling, or spinning on the Empire State Building. They were wrong. The recent success of Little Shop of Horrors, a completely fantastic Broadway-hit-turned-Hollywood-megahit, should have laid that myth to rest. But, loath to buck a trend, Tap went for realism.

Few dance films have ever boasted so stellar a cast. In addition to the finesse of Sammy Davis, Jr., who plays the father of Hines's love interest, every conceivable style or gimmick is represented by the original article: Bunny Briggs ("nerve-tap," or rapid tapping close to the floor using only the isolated foot), Steve Condos (buck and wing), Jimmy Slyde (you guessed it), Sandman Sims (right again), and my personal favorite, Harold Nicholas (one of the Nicholas brothers, acrobatic tappers who starred in such midcentury musicals as Stormy Weather). Indeed, the real problem is that in their all-too-brief jam session, the old-timers make Hines look like a flatfoot, as does even young Savion Glover, star of Broadway's Tap Dance Kid.

Talent surges in Tap, straining at the fetters of realism Castle sees fit to impose. The dancing is raw, unrefined skill. It's like listening to an operatic tenor sing scales for 10 minutes; his range and tonality may be impressive, but you really just wish he'd sing a song.

There is only one number in the entire film that has a discernible beginning and end—the finale. The rest of the film merely tantalizes. More than once, Hines begins to tap, first simply, cleanly, then adding more complexity. Suddenly, he stops to giggle. It's like watching an overwhelmed teenager at high-school drama auditions. In a word, excruciating.

In one particularly promising scene, Hines and costar Suzzanne Douglas are on the roof of her Times Square dance studio, reminiscing about a routine they had once rehearsed to the song "Cheek to Cheek." They recall how many had thought they could be a black Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Do they remember the dance? Of course. They begin, and as the music swells, their flowing interpretation even starts to mimic the inestimable Fred and Ginger. They lunge, and twist, and spin.…

And then it's time to giggle, again.

The film is full of such missed opportunities. Perhaps most frustrating is the misuse of gimmicks, which are always crucial to the dance-movie genre. In Fred Astaire's Royal Wedding, for instance, it was dancing on the ceiling-accomplished by constructing a room that could turn 360 degrees along a horizontal axis (and nailing down all the furniture). In Gene Kelly's Summer Stock, the gimmick was a bit more mundane: a creak in the floor. Kelly and his director searched many an old theater to find a stage with the precise creaking sound they wanted.

The makers of Tap were no less creative, coming up with many interesting gimmicks. Unfortunately, they never finished the thought. An almost-classic scene has Hines leading his tap groupies on a tour of the city streets, finding rhythm and inspiration in a jackhammer and a loose sewer grate. The lesson expands spontaneously into a Fame-like street dance improvisation, complete with a band and happy-go-lucky construction workers joining in. But just as the number reaches a feverish pitch, the film cuts away to another scene. I felt robbed. Surely I wasn't the only one.

In the classic MGM musicals of the mid-century, dance routines were used for many purposes: to portray the leads falling in love, to introduce characters, or, hell, to make use of a good gimmick. But each had a concept, clearly definable, that began, developed, and ended. When the routine was over, the film "paused" to allow the audience time to respond, even silently, with applause or a "wow" experience.

Tap and other modern dance films scoff at such conventions. Fantasy has been discarded, or at least relegated to dream sequence or drug trips. The editor's knife has become less a tool than a crutch, used to disguise dancers' lack of talent, stamina, or style. Why not just cut to another dramatic scene in the middle of a dance? Why bring an idea to a close, instead of letting it peter out? Why film a dance sequence straight through, when multiple takes and editing can make a dancer appear more capable than he or she actually is?

Indeed, the film explicitly challenges orthodox conceptions of dance in a Broadway audition scene. A director reprimands Hines for embellishing the given combination. Hines swats him, saying (but not so directly) that choreographed dance is inferior to his own improvisational style. In the scene he appears to be the lonely artist standing up for his art, but Hines's mentality is really anti-art, because it denies any role for organization, pattern, or style. He sees tap as pure stream-of-consciousness.

Though improvisation can be amazing, even breathtaking, it does not define art. Composition, a decidedly laborious process, is the only route to symphony or opera. No matter how good a blues improv Eric Clapton plays, for instance, no one could stand an entire concert of it. He still has to play his hit songs.

We all seek the anchor of melody, of familiarity, with which to organize our aesthetic perception. Sheer talent, whether in a guitarist's dexterous fretting or a dancer's furious tapping, is not enough. There must be song. Unfortunately, Tap, like most other modern musicals and dance films, has ignored this basic truth. If Tap represents the future of this uniquely American form, that future is bleak—especially if Hines, the greatest tapper of his generation, remains content to improvise rather than compose.

John M. Hood is a reporter at The New Republic and a sometime tap dancer.