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80s Dance-Off: Staying Alive vs Murder-Rock vs Breakin'

  The nineteen-eighties - what a time for dancing! Sure, the seventies had its disco, but that was played out by the time the 20th century milometer went from 1979 to 1980, and nobody wanted to know about Xanadu or The Apple. However, just because they thought disco sucked, didn't mean the dance movie ushered in with Saturday Night Fever in 1977 was spent, in fact it was just getting going as the big hits in a style that replaced the musical for the decade struck gold at the box office. Yes, it was the era of strutting your stuff, who could forget The Brian Rogers Connection? The Hot Shoe Show? Big fish, little fish, cardboard box? At the movies it was even more stellar, if you can envisage such a thing.

Paramount had been hankering after a sequel to Saturday Night Fever for years until Sylvester Stallone came along and persuaded his fellow Italian-American John Travolta to once more put on his dancing trousers thanks to a concept that would essentially craft a dance version of a Rocky sequel. Stallone was riding high at the box office with the actual Rocky sequels, so what could go wrong? To hear some tell it, Staying Alive was a huge flop, but it was in fact nothing of the sort, it was one of the most successful movies of its year and guaranteed a string of dance-a-likes would hit the world's cinemas, from Flashdance to Footloose to Dirty Dancing. As long as the stars didn't sing to the music, audiences lapped it up.

Of course, none of this means Staying Alive was a great movie, it was to put it mildly, absolutely ridiculous. We were intended to admire and support Travolta's toned, shaven-chested Tony Manero as he pursued a career as a Broadway dancer, all he needs is his big break in a 42nd Street sort of way (and that movie was fifty years old at the time), but his head was turned by the female star of the show he has auditioned for, and she (Finola Hughes) notices and begins to toy with his affections. Now, there's blowing hot and cold and there's violent mood swings, and Hughes opted for the latter, as her behaviour would have made any sane man run a mile, but Tony is no sane man - he has the fever! It's five years later and the fever still burns, as the tagline had it!

You can tell this by the psychopathic glower Travolta adopted to depict his character's "resting" face, staring out all and sundry in a try a moodiness, but really it was only the extreme camp that Stallone reverted to in his endeavours to show dancing could be macho that alleviated any thoughts that Manero deserved to be heavily medicated. He was not even that sympathetic: as he followed Hughes around he already had a loyal girlfriend (Cynthia Rhodes) who was haplessly carried along in his wake (she was a dancer too) and your sympathies lay entirely with her since the man she had set her heart upon was plainly a complete moron. However, every dog has his day, and soon Tony gets his break to end all breaks.

That's right, he secures the lead in the Broadway extravaganza designed as the showcase for Hughes after bumping the previous bloke who Rhodes proclaims "too mechanical". Now this is the part we've been waiting for as Stallone takes Travolta up Satan's Alley - before you think otherwise, this is the title of the production and as nobody was interested in ballet anymore (according to this) it seems they would prefer to watch oiled up muscle-men in torso-baring, barely there outfits combat their leading ladies as if in a boxing match (Tony even suffers a cut above the eye) as electric guitars and synths wail on the soundtrack. The theme was going to Hell, but when anyone raises the rumours about Travolta's actual sexuality, point to Staying Alive as a big, kitschy-coo question mark.

But the success of that was enough to demonstrate to other producers that dance movies could be very lucrative, although arguably that trend had begun with Alan Parker's Fame in 1980 which depicted the trials and tribulations of a group of students at New York's School for the Performing Arts. It was perhaps more accurate to observe that it was not so much the movie but its resulting television series The Kids from Fame that was the real impetus for movies with lithe young dancers donning legwarmers and gyrating around to pop tunes, though there were few examples of this less likely than the backers who thought giving Italian schlockmeister Lucio Fulci a chance to direct his own variation on that theme was a good idea.

Murderock, or Murder-Rock: Dancing Death as it was alternatively known, was a shameless cash-in through and through, awkwardly mingling the dance movie with Fulci's more usual fare of horrors and thrillers. You could observe that the fact the giallo, Italy's signature dish when it came to these things, had fallen quite a long way from its seventies heyday if this was the best its filmmakers could conjure up in the style, but that was dependent on your tolerance for trash, which this instance had in abundance. Judging by the terpsichorean sequences here, it had been decided the finest contribution to cinema works like Flashdance had delivered was the pelvic thrust, therefore every setpiece featured them as often as possible.

The plot concerned itself with a New York dance academy, yes, like the one in Fame, which apparently consisted of a rehearsal room, a changing room (and shower) and a room where the security cameras could be checked - that's all you need, apparently. Olga Karlatos was our heroine, a dance tutor who is understandably alarmed when her students begin to be bumped off by a murderer wielding a hatpin, no matter your doubts the injuries as shown would prove fatal. Actually, Fulci fans tend to look down on Murderock as they consider it inferior in their man's canon, which essentially means there's not enough gore for their liking, but who needs gore when you can bust some moves to the funky sounds of Keith Emerson?

The former ELP keyboard whiz composed some rather nasty-sounding pop tunes which were a long way even from Dario Argento's Inferno, never mind his classic period of fifteen years before, but the cast gamely bopped and shimmied to them regardless, these scenes seemingly a substitute for a sex scene in Fulci's fevered mind. However, about the halfway point, after such lunacies as the troupe continuing to perform despite all of them being in tears because of the crimes, the director lost interest in them and this switched to a more traditional giallo, with Ray Lovelock as the prime suspect since Karlatos had had a nightmare about him (!). Why, it's almost as if Lucio wasn't interested in dancing after all, though there was a "torture by pop video" finale.

Later that year, however, arrived the eighties dance movie to end all eighties dance movies, Breakin', or Breakdance as it was known in many territories where they wouldn't understand the reference. Well, maybe the sequel Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo was the ultimate eighties dance movie, its title did become a meme after all, but back at the original (which also spawned Rappin' - the apostrophe very important in this subgenre, obviously) we had a Cannon movie that actually made a lot of money, as opposed to their usual action fare that made a lot of ripples, but didn't back that up with much profit as their brand became toxic to moviegoers. No such qualms here, as they definitively caught the spirit of the age.

It was a simple story, in fact there was barely any story at all, but basically Lucinda Dickey is a waitress who wishes to become a dancer, she is fully trained and everything, but just can't catch a break (so to speak) until a friend puts her in contact with two street dancers, Adolfo Quinones and Michael Chambers. They instruct her in the ways of hip-hop moves despite initial scepticism, and you will be relieved to hear there is a happy ending as success finally arrives, though this was so pared down to the essentials that it was relentlessly padded to make it last just under an hour and a half, and even then you could see the strain. Not to worry, for when you saw what they padded the running time with, any eighties aficionado would be thankful.

This was down to the dancing being genuinely excellent, which the target audience responded to, creating Cannon's biggest hit (along with their more expected Chuck Norris vehicle Missing in Action released about the same time) and a cultural touchstone that may have carried a lot of the cringe factor thanks to its almost instantly-dated trappings, yet once it started you would regard that as a real bonus because there was a lot of fun to be had with Breakin'. Even Jean-Claude Van Damme is having fun, look, there he is in the crowd, clapping away to the beat and beaming benevolently: what finer endorsement do you need? If that was not enough, Ice-T appeared too, and treated us to one of the least aggressive raps ever to accompany the gyrations.

A well-chosen soundtrack of whatever they could get the rights to turned out the hit single There's No Stopping Us by one hit wonders Ollie and Jerry, and also to be heard was Chaka Khan doing Ain't Nobody (though I Feel For You might have been more appropriate) and Kraftwerk's Tour de France, which went like a dream as Chambers danced with his broom. Sure, there are better thought of eighties efforts, and this was a shameless cash-in on a fashion trend in music that nobody believed was going to be anything but a flash in the pan, but somehow Breakin' endures better than those two other pieces discussed above because it had an unabashed sincerity that didn't lapse into trying to be something it was not. Rather this than something like Perfect, another Travolta crime against good taste, though that did prove aerobics was affecting the way to dance and indeed dress. Remember Breakin', though. No, not as an awful warning.
Author: Graeme Clark.


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