Film #39: Turn it Up (2008)

film 39 turn it up

Rating: 2.5/5

“Okay, we have got to get serious here. Dancing is about trust. And connecting.”

A sort-of sequel to 2000’s Center Stage, Turn it Up attempts to cash in on the far greater success of Step Up and the subsequent popularity of dance movies that combine ballet (or other classical forms of dance) with street. Interestingly, the little known Center Stage is, to my knowledge, one of the first films that attempted to do this; it’s also interesting to see how dated its modern dance looks when viewed today, despite its relatively recent release. Both films, however, use street dance as an opportunity to display its protagonists’ more relaxed style and their vitality, before returning back to the technical precision and grace of ballet and, despite the impressive spectacle street dance can embody (the final showdown in Step Up 2: The Streets is a good example), both Center Stage and, to a lesser extent, its sequel’s greatest success is making ballet just as dynamic.

Turn it Up‘s screenplay is entirely formulaic – its plot follows an almost identical path as Burlesque, Coyote Ugly and Make It Happen (and there are probably others). A self-taught dancer, Kate (Rachele Brooke Smith), leaves her small town for an audition at the American Ballet Academy in New York. Despite one of the more innovative judges, Cooper Nielsen (Ethan Stiefel, one of only two returning characters from the original), seeing potential, she fails to secure a spot. Too embarrassed to admit to her little sister back home that she was unsuccessful, she gets a job at an up-and-coming club, where her dance moves impress. Her love interest is a hockey player-turned-ballerina studying at the ABA, who is told by Cooper that he needs to find some “fire” – ballet is not just about complicated technical manoeuvres, but about passion, which Kate has in abundance. They both act as a contrast to the other students at the ABA, largely consisting of stereotypes like flamboyantly camp men and women who only drink low-calorie cocktails. It’s a simple narrative that shares the optimism and general niceness of the likes of High School Musical; uncomplicated, with its characters focused on achieving their dreams. A simple screenplay can, however, still be well-written, and Turn it Up frequently slips into clichés and stilted dialogue – there’s lots of talk about being yourself, following your heart, and never giving up, for example.

The generic, weak script may provide frequent displays of dancing, but it’s not helped by the actors. As the Step Up franchise is increasingly choosing, Turn it Up‘s leads have clearly been selected for their dance abilities, not their acting. Kate and her beau Tommy (Kenny Wormald) come to life when performing routines, but everything in between is flat and uninspiring. They are surrounded by a cast with similar capabilities – Peter Gallagher is the only notable exception, but his role as ABA’s director (also a returning character) is brief. Similarly, Stiefel’s character – one of the leads (and weaker actors) in Center Stage – is almost entirely devoid of personality, and his role is a strangely watered-down repeat of his previous although, like the other performers, his ballet skills are undeniable.

As with all contemporary dance movies, however, the real deciding factor is the dancing. Although some of the street routines do veer into cheesy, they are still more memorable than any featured in Step Up, but Turn it Up‘s selling point is the ballet. While some people may snicker at lines of handsome men in tights, their physical prowess and delicacy is often more impressive than any number of pops and grinds; yet, while the dancers (both male and female) all display a considerable amount of talent in this area, even here the film fails to match the standards set by its predecessor. In fact, Turn it Up is generally rather forgettable – with the exception of a few notable routines, what stays with me the most is its narrative averageness and the woodenness of its actors. That’s not to say, however, that its a total disaster but, even as a fan of dance movies (and of Center Stage in particular), I would consider it as little more than a reasonably entertaining example of the genre.