Gotta Sing! Gotta Dance!

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The finale of High School Musical

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Not that the movie doesn't contain seeds of its own parody. Peter Barsocchini's script is so aware of its cliches, they almost become endearing. It sets up a dialectic of extremes. Troy's pal Chad (Corbin Bleu) proudly voices the philistine argument: "The music in these shows isn't rock or rap or anything essential..." and "They've got you thinking about show tunes when we've got a basketball game next week." (Why, that's un-American.) The Broadway side is taken by the mandatory snooty blond, Sharpay (Ashleey Tisdale), who calls the Garofalesque composer of the show a "sawed-off Sondheim" and sees it as her mission "to save the world from people who don't know the difference between a Tony Award and Tony Hawk." When Sharpay asks, with haughty sarcasm, "Did you ever see Michael Crawford on a cereal box?", most kids will have to Google the joke, or ask their parents.

Whether or not they know the answer, parents must be applauding a show full of old-fashioned optimistic pop, rather than the woe-is-the-world nihilism of more mature rock and rap. Indeed, the songs are designed for the ears of the young and not-so. They take their hooks from old ('60s-'80s) pop, filching motifs heard in every retro-rock musical from Grease and The Rocky Horror Show through Footloose and up to Hairspray — all of which have been Broadway shows and (when Hairspray is filmed next year) movies.


The songs in Take the Lead span a wider divide: Gershwin and Porter tunes laced with, and sometimes remixed as, hip-hop. The plot elements are virtually the same as in High School Musical: the main boy, who must juggle his old extracurricular activity (here it's thuggery) with a furtive itch to express himself through music; the class-conscious blond who needs a comeuppance; and a climax where three crucial events are occurring with implausible simultaneity. In HSM it's a basketball game, a scholarly competition and the final auditions for the show; in Take the Lead a dance contest, a deb ball and the main boy's participation in a heist. (You don't see these movies for the plots.)

The difference is the presence of an inspiring teacher. But Pierre Dulaine (Banderas) isn't a tough-talker in the Stand and Deliver or Coach Carter mold. Dianne Houston's script paints Pierre as a gentleman of the old school, who stands when a woman walks by and opens the door for her. "It's called courtesy," he explains to a boy who thinks the new guy is a Martian.

To the kids of this inner-city institute, good manners are medieval, and not in the Pulp Fiction way. And Pierre is nothing if not an anachronism. For a start, the movies haven't dabbled in the image of the suave, kindly Frenchman since Charles Boyer and Louis Jourdan hung up their spats. (For a startle: Malaga's own Antonio as the real-life Pierre? He explains, lamely but gamely, that his mother was Spanish, and that he speaks five languages, "all with a Spanish accent." Anyway, he has the savoir-faire, or unforced machismo, to bring it off.)

But Pierre, who volunteers to supervise after-school detention for the high-schoolers (the real Dulaine taught grammar-school kids), has a steely will to match theirs. He will teach them the seven classic ballroom dances: waltz, Viennese waltz, fox trot, swing, tango, rumba and meringay. And if they dedicate themselves to it, they can compete in the city-wide dance-off at the end of the term. One kids sneers: "Music is corny. There's no feeling." To prove he's wrong, Pierre bends and blends. When someone proposes to mix the standards repertoire with a hip-hop beat, Pierre says, "Two songs, working together. It is a beautiful idea." Like two people, dancing together.

I can't approve of director Liz Friedlander's camera tricks. To make the dance moves look fancier, she'll momentarily speed them up or slow them down. But the fogey in me (who am I kidding? the fogey is me) admires the lesson Pierre teaches his students: that to take up ballroom dancing is the easiest way for them to shake off the carapaces of their street-hardened attitude and discover the social uses of discipline, civility, subtlety. And if they think of dancing as orchestrated sex, as screwing in three-quarter time, that's OK too. It's a way of finding freedom of movement and expression within what might seem the constriction of tradition. Isn't that the best definition of work, marriage, maturity? These kids are learning the graces they'll need in their life after high school, as an escape hatch from the inner-city street.

This is the way Hollywood, in its so-called Golden Age, socialized America: by showing beautiful people in chic clothes trying to behave honorably — sometimes while singing and dancing. It's not a stretch to say that movies taught the underclass how to act like the middle and upper classes. High School Musical and Take the Lead may be no one's idea of classic, or even very good, movies, but they are in that gentle pedagogic mold. And they are catching tweens at maybe the last age when they might acknowledge — in their secret, not-yet-stereotyped hearts — that they they still have something to learn.

Shall we put on a show, kids? Shall we dance?

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