31 May 2011

White Nights (1985)

It's been awhile since I've had updates to my dance movie review series, but after lugging around Center Stage: Turn It Up and White Nights for months -- and bogging down my Netflix consumption -- I finally sat down to watch the latter.

Many of you might be asking, "What is White Nights? I've never heard of it." Well, it's a dance movie starring one of the greatest ballet dancers of all time -- who also doubles as the man who almost stole Carrie away from Mr. Big -- and thus qualifying it as a must see. Throw in co-stars such as Gregory Hines, Helen Mirren, Isabella Rossellini and you've got the makings of a classic. Released in 1985, White Nights isn't exactly the type of dance movie I normally review here but I had to give it a shot as it seems to fit the mold of "watch this movie for the dance performances and fast forward through the rest." Dare I say that it was the You Got Served of the Eighties? Oh wait, that might be Flashdance, but I haven't seen that either (yet).

Tagline: "A Whole New Motion Picture Experience Is On the Horizon" or "Two men. Not soldiers. Not heroes. Just dancers. Willing to risk their lives for freedom -- and each other." I don't know which was the actual tagline but it seems like both were used on various posters. This was the Rocky-esque poster for the videodisc.

1. Plot (8)
Mikhail Baryshnikov plays a ballet dancer who defected to the United States eight years ago. In an effort to get him back, the Russian authorities stage a plane crash to recapture him for the Bolshoi Ballet. Then he's brought to the home of Gregory Hines, an American who defected to Siberia in order to escape Vietnam... You know what? Who cares. The plot is ridiculous and just serves as a platform for some dance offs. It's a tap versus ballet battle! In the context of a dance movie though, throwing in some political undertones seems positively normal as it was the Eighties and the Cold War was years away from ending. Try watching the original trailer for some sense of the movie.

2. Can the lead characters dance? (10)
Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! I can't say I've ever seen Baryshnikov dance before but as the only ballerino most people have ever heard of, he must be pretty amazing. At one point in the movie he does eleven pirouettes in a row and this is apparently the equivalent of Tony Hawk pulling off a 900. Gregory Hines was obviously a great dancer and proves it in this movie. Not really understanding ballet or tap, I can only give both of them perfect marks.

3. How’re the dance scenes? (9)
The opening scene featuring Baryshnikov is pretty powerful. An emotional tap rant by a drunken Hines as he talks about America's racism and the reason he chose Russia versus fighting in Vietnam is unique, but you really just can't beat Mikhail and Gregory together in a fantastic duet that includes mock kung fu moves and lots of gliding. There's also some solo Baryshnikov and solo Hines stuff, and probably not enough dance scenes in general.

4. How’s the love story? (1)
I don't think there was one. Unless you count the bromance between the leads.

5. Rate the sidekicks (3)
Technically speaking, Helen Mirren and Isabella Rossellini are the sidekicks here but they don't really have much of a role in the film. The opening credits "introduce" Rossellini but since I haven't seen David Lynch's Blue Velvet, I can't say if she broke through in this movie or not. Mirren plays Baryshnikov's ex-partner and is well, younger than now. Neither Mirren nor Rossellini add much in the way of value or wisecracks. They do pass the "whoa, she's in this movie!" test though.

6. Best line (5)
Early on in the film, Hines mentions that Baryshnikov isn't as tall as he thought he would be, given Baryshnikov's stature in the dance world. This refers to the real life height deficiency that plagued Baryshnikov early on in his dance career. As his Wikipedia explains: "Shorter than most dancers, [Baryshnikov] could not tower over a ballerina en pointe and was therefore relegated to secondary parts." I thought it was funny they alluded to that in the movie.

The best line, and one I'll be quoting quite a bit, was when Hines said, "I'm not a hero, I'm just a dancer." I think he was saying this to Baryshnikov as they contemplated an escape, but really, it's a useful phrase for any situation.

7. Music (9)
A tape of modern jazzy music inspires Hines to rediscover his soul and love for the game, as it were. Also Phil Collins' "Separate Lives" is a featured song. More importantly, Lionel Richie's "Say You, Say Me" is the official song of the film. That fact tickles me to no end. Both songs were nominated for Academy Awards with Richie taking home the Oscar. Watch a video of Baryshnikov dancing to Say You, Say Me.

8. Fashion (4)
Mom jeans, man purses, loafers, and sensible jackets with no flair. Clearly the wardrobe budget here was spent at JC Penney. Even in 1985, I doubt anyone was excited by the attire. And not one leotard in sight. The best thing about the fashion in this film was Baryshnikov's white sneakers that he wore to dance around in. I have a thing for white sneakers and really enjoyed his wearing of them.

Overall I would have given the fashion component of this movie an even lower score but my movie watching companion said "I love all the outfits she [Mirren] is wearing!" I guess the clothing in the mid-80s reflect well now, at least the stuff Mirren was dressed up in. Extra points for that.

9. Cultural Impact (3)
It's safe to say there will never be another movie quite like this. I'm trying to think of what a remake of this would be like today. Maybe a Justin Timberlake and Usher collabo set in North Korea with the threat of nuclear war in the balance. Twenty five years after White Nights, I'm thinking nobody really remembers the film at all -- as my Twitter poll quickly revealed. I even tried to get some idea of what the cultural impact of the movie was when it came out in '85 but a friend's response was: "I saw it in Japan when I was nine years old with my ballet group... We took it seriously from a dance perspective but ignored any cultural impact. Ya know, cuz we were kids. Who just wanted to dance." Based on my extensive research, I'm guessing few lives were changed in the watching of this movie, then or now.

10. Miscellaneous (7)
The director, Taylor Hackford, met Mirren during this film and they got married a decade later. The title refers to the "white nights" that occur in Russia when daylight extends way into the evening. I have no idea how this is related to the movie. I think I could figure out the analogy with a little bit of thought but I don't want to tax my brain. I mean, I have to save my strength to think of all the deep deep themes this movie showcases.

This guide from teachwithmovies.com can be used as "a supplement for studies on the Cold War, exploring the role of an artist in a totalitarian society, acquainting students with the little known phenomenon of African Americans defecting to the Soviet Union to try to find a society free from racism, and of the racism that they encountered in Russia." No other dance movie is this deep, no sir. And if you watch the DVD making of like I did, you'll see how serious Hackford was about making a dance thriller with depth. A sample question from the study guide: "Why did Rodchenko's lady friend decide to stay in the Soviet Union? What would you have done had you been in her position?"

The question spinning through my head throughout the movie was: "Why go to all this trouble just to take back a ballet dancer? Was he that important a cultural treasure?" I guess behind the Iron Curtain they just had different priorities than we did. Stage a plane crash, put him up in a penthouse, threaten his freedoms, all to teach Baryshnikov a lesson.

According to the rating system, White Nights came in just a hair above Street Dance. The poor showing can be attributed to an absolute lack of anything watcheable aside from the dance scenes and arguably the music. In fact, if someone were to ask me if they should sit down with this movie, I'd be highly tempted to just have them take to YouTube. Then again, this movie is a true gem because of the Baryshnikov and Hines pairing. The other beauty of White Nights is that it takes itself seriously. This was conceived as a film and not just throwaway entertainment. For that alone, White Nights elevates the genre and should be viewed at least once. Maybe in the background while you do something else though. For safety reasons.