The continued endurance of dance movies is deeply bizarre to me. Even if a year passes without another lovingly ludicrous ‘Step Up’ sequel, we’ll get at least one ‘Step Up’ substitute to ensure that audiences can enjoy melodrama and musical gyrating on the big screen (where it belongs). This spring’s obligatory dance movie is a little different from most, however.
Oh sure, ‘Desert Dancer’ is still about hot young twenty-somethings who discover youthful freedom by shaking their booties in time with the rhythm and the beat. This time, though, it’s set in a contemporary Iran, where public dancing is outlawed. The dancing all arrives on screen backed up with political undertones, hefty swells of emotion, and the burden of being based on a true story. That’s a lot for a genre as flimsy as dance movies to contain, and yet somehow it all kind of works.
Reece Ritchie stars in the life story of Afshin Ghaffarian. The film takes place in the repressive contemporary Iranian regime. Ghaffarian has been obsessed with dance since childhood, in part because it’s illegal to perform publicly, but mostly because he just likes to dance, man. He finally gets a chance to indulge in his favorite shimmy ‘n’ shake pastime when he enters university and meets a likeminded group of students who enjoy dancing the night away in illegal nightclubs when they aren’t arranging political protests. Eventually, he talks them into forming a dance group together, with the goal of staging an illegal protest dance show in the desert.
Once the troupe gets up and running, Ghaffarian meets Elaheh (Freida Pinto from ‘Slumdog Millionaire’), who assumes the role of his tragic love interest. Her mother was a professional ballerina before the regime change destroyed her career. Fortunately, she passed her skills and genetics along to her daughter, who now spreads her lessons and love to Ghaffarian when she isn’t strung out on heroin like so many lost souls in her country.
Yeah, it’s not exactly a happy dance movie, but that’s what makes it special.
In a weird way, ‘Desert Dancer’ plays like a dark version of ‘Footloose’. Most dance movies need some sort of Mr. Nogoodnik to ban our plucky young heroes from doing their thing. Generally speaking, this is just as goofy as John Lithgow’s cornball villain from that Kevin Bacon classic. In ‘Desert Dancer’, British director Richard Raymond and his screenwriter Jon Croker have found a way to tell that same story with actual dramatic heft. The stakes are real and the plot is sincere, yet the catchy montages and triumphant third act performance remain.
It’s a peculiar twist on old genre tropes, at once feeling oddly familiar and completely fresh. For once, there’s some actual emotional weight and even political content to a dance movie. Occasionally, that leaves the final product feeling a little tonally confused. But when the filmmakers are firing on all cylinders, they deliver a dance movie with poignancy and thematic heft beneath all the showy set-pieces.
Raymond directs the film with a steady hand despite this being his first feature. He’s making a movie about another culture, but does so with impressive sensitivity and sincerity. The characters are all quite real, and the performances contain weight above and beyond the choreography. As the movie barrels towards its climax and the genuine danger the heroes face mounts, it can even be rather disturbing and Raymond handles that material well. Then, when his big climatic dance scene arrives, it’s just as visually appealing and impressive as any dance climax, only now it feels deeply moving and defiant as well.
Sure, ‘Desert Dancer’ can also feel a little episodic and melodramatic at times, but to deliver a dance movie that doubles as a drama and somehow works is certainly a unique achievement. In the strange little world of dance movies, this flick feels special.