Hot Take: High Strung is the pure joy of music and dance on screen. You’ll rarely hear this here but this one could have done with even less story and just spent more time on dance.
If it weren’t for So You Think You Can Dance? — one of the few reality TV shows worth watching — I doubt I would know the pleasure I get from watching dance. For the longest time, it was an art form I chose to ignore. However, thanks to that show, I have a bigger interest and a better understanding of dance and the emotion and dedication it takes. So, even though I knew very little about High Strung, I was mildly excited to see it on screen.
Last year, I had a similar desire to see Dancin’ It’s On which ended up being one of the worst films I saw in 2015. However, where Dancin’ It’s On failed (which was pretty much everywhere), High Strung managed to succeed and, in many ways, shine. High Strung doesn’t have the strongest story. Very few dance movies are known for strong plots. However, the cast of High Strung are very committed to their roles and seem to take their acting as serious as their dancing managing to deliver a convincing performance despite it being obvious that, for many of the cast members, acting isn’t their greatest asset.
What makes High Strung so entertaining and fun to watch is not the story but music and dance. The two art forms take turns in the spotlight and occasionally share the stage as the thin plot of a pair of teens from opposites sides of the tracks (a flawless blonde ballerina in New York on scholarship at a fancy contemporary arts school and a lethal-clad street musician illegally in the country from Britain) who eventually find love and work together as music and dance infuse into the culmination of a competition in the third act of the film. The story is only present to take us from one entertaining music or dance scene to the next. However, the acting is competent enough to keep the audience invested in what’s unfolding.
This is about the music and dance and marrying various styles of dancing (mainly hip-hop, classical and contemporary) and different forms of music. Keenan Kampa (as Ruby) shows off why she was the first American to earn a contract with Russia’s Mariinsky Theatre. Nicholas Galitzine (as Johnny) is a little bit more convincing in his acting and is charismatic as a hip-hop violinist ducking the law to keep from being deported. The pair initially (sort of) clash but this film spends very little time being sardonic and prefers the idealistic approach and the two quickly get together and work toward winning a competition that will allow Johnny to stay in the country and get out of his financial difficulties.
Both director Michael Damian and choreographer Dave Scott (Step Up 2, Step Up 3D) keep the focus on the dance. There are a number of memorable showcases throughout the film including a violin battle between Johnny and Kyle (Richard Southgate) at a posh charity event that evolves into The Switch Steps — the street dance crew that has befriended Johnny — showing off their hip hop moves. There’s a dance battle in the subway, a dance-off in a corner pub and the frenetic third act competition. Scott’s choreography married to the film’s original score is a joy to watch and makes it easy to forgive the total lack of anything compelling story-wise. Obviously, High Strung is for fans of dance only but, if you are, this is definitely worth watching.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
If we leave Mia Michaels out of the conversation, Dave Scott might be the best current dance choreographer going. His ability to marry multiple styles of dance shines through in High Strung and helps carry the film.
- Smart Casting
Kampa is such a skilled ballerina, you don’t really care about her shortcomings in the acting department. Plus, adding Jane Seymour, Maia Morgenstern and Paul Freeman does give the movie some semblance of acting ability as both are accomplished character actors. Both play the stereotypical hard-nosed dance instructors but do it with convincing conviction.
- Great Ensemble Dancing
It’s arguably harder to deliver a memorable ensemble dance number than a solo performance. However, High Strung consistently brings it when it comes to ensemble performances. Most of the numbers are contrived plot-wise but you probably won’t even roll your eyes.
“Spoiler Free” Cons
- For Dance Fans Only
It’s hard to imagine anyone not a fan of dance getting a ton from this film.
- Odd Camera Work
In the film, there are a few angles and close-ups that are actually uncomfortable to watch. There’s an innocuous scene in the middle of the film where Ruby is talking to her roommate while she’s taking a bath. Throughout the shot, there are extreme close-ups of Ruby’s face that should be reserved for a Noxzema commercial.
- New York?
In previous reviews, I’ve discussed my unhealthy love of movies filmed in New York. Throughout High Strung (set in New York), there was something odd about the film despite it’s NYC setting. Something didn’t feel quite right. However, some of the shots were actually filmed in Romania (including the subway scenes) which feels like a total violation.