Saturday, June 27, 2015

Tap (1989)

Director: Nick Castle                                         Writer: Nick Castle
Film Score: James Newton Howard                 Cinematography: David Gribble
Starring: Gregory Hines, Sammy Davis Jr., Suzzanne Douglas and Joe Morton

The late Gregory Hines definitely made the most of what would seem like a small niche in entertainment: tap dancing. He was also the art form’s greatest promoter, bringing to the fore great tap dancers that had fallen into obscurity or had been better known for something else. I’ll never forget his part in a birthday celebration for Sammy Davis Jr. at the end of the entertainer’s life. Hines made Davis’s wife bring his tap shoes even though he was dying of cancer. He was able to get Davis onstage for a friendly duel and before he knew it Davis began pushing him for real. Finally Hines gave it his best shot, and Davis completely cut him. Hines then fell to his knees and crawled over to Davis and began kissing his shoes. In the film Tap, it’s clear that Hines’ and writer-director Nick Castle’s reverence for the man caused them to place him in the optimal circumstance to demonstrate his talents. And they are considerable. Davis is a colossal talent and he shows it here with acting abilities that were completely wasted during his Rat Pack days.

The film begins with Gregory Hines in a prison cell, thinking about how he learned to dance, so he puts his shoes on and begins working out in his cell. Half the other prisoners hate it, and the other half love it, but Hines is in the zone and impressive on his toes. After being released from prison he’s given a job washing dishes, but one of the mobsters he worked with, Jeffrey Josephson, shows up and tells him to put in an appearance at a party thrown by the big boss, Dick Anthony Williams--though it’s probably a violation of his parole. Instead he goes to a dance studio called Sonny’s, sees that his old flame Suzzanne Douglas is dating someone else, then goes up to the private third floor and is reunited with Sammy Davis Jr. The most fabulous scene in the film--possibly the entire reason for watching the movie--comes next when Davis attempts to get Hines back into dancing by interpreting his slight of the old guys having “no legs” as a challenge. The exhibition that follows is truly awe-inspiring. And if Hines had done nothing else in his entire career but capture those men on film in their last hurrah, he would have made an indelible impact on motion picture history.

Davis has a big plan for a performance that only Hines can pull off--if, of course, Hines is willing to do it. When everyone sees him going to Williams’ party, they think he’s decided to go back to his old life of crime. But even Hines isn’t sure. When he gets there he tells fellow hood Joe Morton that when he gets a chance he’s going to take his head off, but he plays nice with Williams, begging off from an immediate robbery job. But Hines comes back to tap night at a local club and winds up bringing all the dancers out into the street to perform an impromptu jam session and dance. This is what Davis’s idea was about. He and the bartender/sound man at the bar want to wire Hines’ shoes to a synthesizer and change the whole complexion of tap. At the same time Hines is making a play for his old girl, Douglas, and simultaneously appearing to be at work for Williams. She tries to get him into the chorus line of a Broadway tap show, but Davis knows that’s a waste of his talents. The conflict, then, becomes whether he’s going to follow his dancing to its ultimate end, or revert to the life of crime that landed him in prison.

While the dancing scene with the old hoofers remains the centerpiece of the film, all of the dancing is exceptional, the impromptu performance in the streets of Times Square, the performance by Savion Glover at the studio, the “black Fred and Ginger” on the rooftop, and even the finale--however impossible--is impressive. The acting by Hines and the rest of the principal cast is equal to the task, with the possible exception of Joe Morton who had the unfortunate circumstance of being cast in a rather one-dimensional role. He does what he can, but there’s no overcoming the deficiencies of his part in the script. If there’s a negative to the film it’s that it suffers from eighties jetlag, most apparent in the soundtrack. The worst offense is in the love scene between Hines and Douglas, with fog dimming the set, beams of light streaming in, and a lame eighties pop song playing on the soundtrack--you half expect Jennifer Beals to go dancing through the room. Other than that, though, Tap is a first-class film and deserves much wider recognition and critical praise if only for the brilliant performance of Sammy Davis Jr.

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