By Erik Lundegaard
Special to MSN Movies
A female friend who's given to bouts of cynicism recently dismissed movie musicals as awful, phony things. "Two people are talking and then all of a sudden they start singing and dancing?" She stuck out her tongue. "It's so unreal."
"As opposed to what?" I answered. "'Die Hard'? 'Spider-Man'? All movies are unreal. That's the point of movies. It just depends what kind of unreality we're willing to accept.
"In fact," I added, "the problem isn't that people in musicals start singing and dancing. The problem is that we don't." At which point I began to croon to her like Sinatra and dance with her like Astaire.
OK, so I made up this last part. But wouldn't it be nice if I hadn't?
Are musicals, at long last, on their way back? "Chicago" won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2002 and, more importantly, grossed over $170 million. Suddenly all of Hollywood is asking itself the title of the new Richard Gere/Jennifer Lopez romance: "Shall We Dance?" Our answer is yes, please, yes. In honor, we've compiled a list of 10 of the greatest dance scenes of all-time. But make no mistake: This is a layman's list. We can recognize technical skills, but not like someone who's actually studied dance. However, pure technical skills aren't what we're after anyway. We want grace. We want pow. We want legs that go up to here.
When talking about dance in film you inevitably get back to two men: Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. In an effort to add some variety, we've imposed an artificial limit of only two appearances on the list per dancer. Didn't help much. We wound up with only two scenes from the last 40 years, and various recent iconic scenes just didn't make the cut. "Saturday Night Fever"? Travolta did a great job, but his movements are the mechanical ones of the recently schooled. "Pulp Fiction"? It's the twist, folks, a dance invented for people who can't dance. "Dirty Dancing"? Baby stays in the corner. "Flashdance"? Any movie that requires a double for the dance scenes is immediately vetoed. Oh, and no "Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo" either. We know this will disappoint. Heck, even we were disappointed with some of the dance numbers we had to leave off. Yet for all our disappointment, this was an assigment of pure joy, because that's what dance is. Now let's cut a rug...
10. Fishnets! We Need More Fishnets!
Movie: "Chicago" (2002)
Song: "Cell Block Tango"
Dancers: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Susan Misner, Denise Faye, Deidre Goodwin, Ekaterina Chtchelkanova, Mya
Director: Rob Marshall
Choreographer: Rob Marshall
Hey, who's that short dumpy girl in the middle of this number? Oh, just the sexiest woman alive. Which makes you wonder: Who the hell are all these other women to make Catherine Zeta-Jones look so short and dumpy? Whoever they are, bless them and their fishnets. Cutting between the glittery dance scenes and the women in their prison grays is inspired direction, but you almost wonder if choreographer Rob Marshall would like to have a word with director Rob Marshall, since the excessive cutting seems to get in the way of the dance. The scene sizzles, but the rest of "Chicago" is less song-and-dance than song-and-walk. You get what you hire.
9. Before Freedom Fries
Movie: "An American in Paris" (1951)
Song: "I Got Rhythm"
Dancer: Gene Kelly
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Choreographer: Gene Kelly
The ballet sequence at the end of "An American in Paris" is iconic, but we've always preferred the simplicity of Gene Kelly, with shirt sleeves rolled up, teaching a gaggle of French kids some English words, a great Gershwin tune, and a couple of dance steps. It's a portrait of what we want the American abroad to be: brassy and hammy, sure, but good-looking and fun-loving, and reaching out to everybody. Growing up in the 1970s, we wanted to be Gene Kelly in the 1950s. He personifies the adage: "Smile and the world smiles with you."
8. En Pointe in Tennis Shoes
Movie: "White Nights" (1985)
Song: "Koni Priviredlivije" or "The Horses"
Dancer: Mikhail Baryshnikov
Director: Taylor Hackford
Choreographer: Twyla Tharp
White what? Exactly. This is not a particularly good movie, and for young people it's a virtual relic, since it's a Cold War thriller. A Russian ballet defector (played by Russian ballet defector Mikhail Baryshnikov) is on a plane that is forced to crash-land in the Soviet Union. He survives but is held captive when the Russians realize who he is. Helen Mirren plays his former lover, now a theater director, and she takes him back to the Kirov Ballet, site of some of his greatest triumphs. She wants him to stay, he wants to be free. At one point he realizes that she listens to her music, by Russian dissident Vladimir Vysotsky, softly, in "a whisper," and he turns it up and begins to express himself in dance. The direction is not great -- the cuts to a weeping Mirren are melodramatic and unnecessary -- but Baryshnikov, in tight T-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes, is so talented, and Vysotsky has such a powerful, passionate voice, that the scene overwhelms.
7. Class in Central Park
Movie: "The Band Wagon"
Song: "Dancing in the Dark" (instrumental)
Dancers: Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse
Director: Vincent Minnelli
Choreographer: Michael Kidd
Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire), an aging song-and-dance man, is attempting a comeback in a New York stage production where his co-star is the up-and-coming ballet star Gabrielle Girard (Cyd Charisse). He's worried he's over the hill, she's worried about dancing with a legend, and initially they're combative. But after a buggy ride through Central Park and a stroll through same, they pass dancing couples. Alone, without word or signal, they quietly begin to dance. Both are dressed in white. Both swirl and float in perfect synchronicity with each other and the music. There are only three cuts in this three-minute dance sequence (take note, Rob Marshall), and every shot is from a full-body perspective. Nothing grand is attempted. They are simply more graceful than people have a right to be.
6. Jets Create Sharks
Movie: "West Side Story" (1961)
Song: "Cool" (instrumental)
Dancers: Russ Tamblyn, George Chakiris, and various Jets and Sharks
Director: Jerome Robbins; Robert Wise
Choreographer: Jerome Robbins
The set-up for this 150-minute, Academy Award-winning movie is accomplished in the first five minutes with almost no dialogue, just dance. The Jets, an Anglo gang, rule a Hell's Kitchen playground and its surrounding neighborhood until they encounter a steely-eyed Puerto Rican (George Chakiris). Then the escalation begins: Two Jets pick on the Puerto Rican. The Puerto Rican is joined by two others, snapping their fingers, and they go after two Jets... until five more appear. The Jets try to scatter the Puerto Ricans wherever they find them but only succeed in creating a rival gang: The Sharks. By the end of the intro we're in the middle of a full-fledged gang war. We repeat: all done with dance. We're almost bummed when people start talking.
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