Tuesday, July 24, 2007

THAT'S DANCING! (MGM 1985) Warner Home Video

In 1974, MGM celebrated its waning kingdom of goodies with a docu-tainment featuring the best of the best from its former glories – That’s Entertainment! So successful was this film, both in and of itself, and, in jump starting a cycle of nostalgia for ‘the good ol’ days’ (that continues in full flourish today), that That’s Entertainment! was immediately followed one year later by a sequel. Though not nearly as popular as its predecessor, That’s Entertainment Part II convinced writer/producer, Jack Haley Jr. that there was more than enough unused material readily available and waiting for yet another sequel. 1985’s That’s Dancing! is not really a sequel, per say, but a departure from the format of the first two features, this one dedicated exclusively to great dancers and dance sequences in movie musicals.

In the intervening decade MGM, the studio that had once so proudly trumpeted its supremacy within the industry as having 'more stars than there are in heaven' had devolved into one of Hollywood's truly unforgivable tragedies; its boardroom repeatedly rocked by mismanagement and management crises, its stable of top flight in-house technicians whittled down to a handful of old timers barely able to remember the true golden age when virtually all of the studio's most memorable product had been produced. 

Worse, a corporate takeover in 1973 had resulted in a divestment of virtually all of the studio's assets. The production facilities were shuttered, then rented out to independent producers, the back lots containing sets spanning virtually every period in human history bulldozed to make way for condo and housing development, and the vast library of props and costumes once worn by Gable, Garbo and their like auctioned off to the highest bidder for a mere tuppence of what they were actually worth.    

In those final sad days MGM went from the king of features to a wholesale distributor of other filmmaker's product, its cavernous real estate becoming one giant garage sale to satisfy the needs of the new principle stockholder, Kirk Kerkorian. Hence, by the time That's Dancing! went into production, MGM was no longer an entity worthy of its celebration. Little surprise then, that Jack Haley Jr. was forced to shoot virtually all of his new inserts, featuring the likes of Sammy Davis Jr., Gene Kelly,  and Liza Minnelli to name but three, elsewhere instead of within those once hallowed studio grounds.   

In crafting a loose narrative around another bumper crop of clips, Haley also chose to look outside MGM’s golden library, petitioning virtually every other studio in Hollywood to participate in his new venture. Some did. Most did not. Unwisely, Haley marched ahead with what he had. However, unlike the That's Entertainment! films that preceded it, That’s Dancing! emerged as something of a labyrinth rather than a holiday, with gaping holes in its narrative and a sort of truncated assessment of the present and future of musical entertainment.

There was, for example, no good reason - other than rights issues, to omit memorable films like The Sound of Music, Grease, The Music Man, My Fair Lady, Camelot, Brigadoon and Pennies from Heaven from this compilation. As a result Haley was forced to stay pretty close to home, relying on a good many clips from the MGM archive, while occasionally inserting scenes and numbers from the other studios to augment the occasion. 

But the film's flaw in continuity became further exacerbated by the fact that the clips taken from movies not made at MGM had - and have - a very different artistic flair. West Side Story's electrifying 'Cool' as example was incongruously butted against MGM's own 'The Red Blues' from Silk Stockings, Irene Cara's Fame unflattering and chaotic when dumped next to Michael Jackson's meticulously choreographed 'Beat It' music video. 

Somewhere along the road the producers jettisoned the idea to remain exclusive to movie musicals, while inexplicably and unapologetically excluding other relevant forms of dance. Mikhail Baryshnikov's tribute to ballet on film suffered from too much stilted exposition and not enough examples of ballet on film. (In truth, ballet on film has always been a rather tough nut to crack, presumably because it remains too highbrow for the masses). There were extensive tributes to Fred Astaire and Busby Berkeley, but curiously none dedicated exclusively to Gene Kelly, much less Gene Nelson or Donald O'Connor. 

Also, for obvious reasons, That's Dancing! excluded the great singers of movie musicals from its repertoire, creating a sort of 'black hole' within the context of the genre itself. After all, the earliest movie musicals were often trumpeted as "All dancing! all singing!" Yet, at its best That's Dancing! is a little of both, though hardly a celebration of either.

The film's opening sequence set to the title tune "That's Dancing", featured a stunningly edited compendium of clips from a host of memorable movie musicals never again glimpsed in the film, while the finale attempted to recap the previous two hours of occasional tedium, this time set to Carly Simon's 'Invitation to Dance'. 

To assist in this mélange, Haley employed no less authorities on the art of dancing than Mikhail Baryshnikov, Ray Bolger, Sammy Davis Jr., Gene Kelly and Liza Minnelli. Each was provided with a particular period in film history to filter through; Kelly book-ending the exercise – beginning with the 1980s break dancing craze, before regressing to clips from Busby Berkeley’s best work at Warner Bros. Sammy Davis Jr. paid homage to Fred Astaire’s solos and pas deux at RKO. 

Minnelli attempted to present the ‘best of Broadway’ – a curious claptrap of clips that included James Carney’s turn as George M. Cohen in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Bolger gave a brief summary of MGM’s late 1940s and early '50s tenure and Baryshnikov provided a dull and rather meandering account of ballet. Despite some interesting material feathered in along the way, That’s Dancing! failed to come to life except in fits and sparks, reminding the viewer that the past – unlike the film that attempted to resurrect it – was indeed completely and sadly dead.

When it was all over the public generally agreed. While not a financial flop, That's Dancing! was hardly the box office dynamo That's Entertainment! had been. Viewed today, That's Dancing! seems so much more a cultural relic of the 1980s than a timeless cavalcade. Kim Carnes' songs and the 'new' inserts are woefully undernourished offerings at best, superficial in their understanding of the talent they so desperately seek to emulate and extol. In the final analysis, That's Dancing! is very much like a starter home for newlyweds. You know it isn't exactly what you want, but if you don't know any better you do your best to convince yourself that it will do for the time being. My advice? Skip the starter and just jump right into the That's Entertainment anthology - an infinitely more rewarding and pleasurable distraction for an hour or two.

Warner Home Video’s DVD transfer is middle of the road considering that, at the time these clips were assembled for the original theatrical engagement, digital restoration was not even an option. Many of the clips included in That's Dancing! are imperfect. Even so, it appears as though Warner Home Video has gone back to the drawing board, inserting newly mastered clips from some of their restoration efforts made in the interim. Clips from Singin’ In The Rain and the Berkeley musicals – as example – appear much more refined than others included herein. Throughout That's Dancing! the aspect ratio changes as it did during the original theatrical exhibition to accommodate full frame and widescreen formats.

Video quality varies. Some clips are quite sharp and free of age related artifacts while others show their age. Arguably, one is watching this film for its historical content and not for overall visual integrity. Even so, the image is satisfactory for the most part. Colors can be vibrant and bold. Contrast levels appear quite accurately rendered. The audio has been remastered in 5.1 – the only real benefactors being the opening title music ‘That’s Dancing’ and Kim Carnes’ ‘Invitation to Dance’.

Extras include 4 abysmal featurettes made in conjunction with the film. These featurettes are of such poor visual quality that they cannot even be classified as reference materials. It is a pity more was not done to stabilize the image. The original theatrical trailer is also included.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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