Breakin' screens at the Toronto Underground Cinema on Saturday, February 26th at 9:00pm. Vagrancy Films will also be screening this film in London, Ontario at Rainbow Cinemas (355 Wellington Street East) on Wednesday, February 23rd at 9:30pm.
What you are about to read is an incredibly pretentious piece written for a university course in film musicals about the films Breakin' and Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo. This was originally a 25 page paper that I shortened to 9 pages and eliminated the footnotes and citations from. Some wording has been changed in the sake of making an entertaining read, but is essentially word for word the paper that got me a B+. Any lapses in logic or clarity are hereby intentional and designed not to bore you to sleep. The truth is, I love Breakin' enough to write this much and this passionately about it. I also know that you will, too. Even on a cheesy level, Breakin' is one of the most entertaining films I have ever seen.
The 1980s were not a decade that was well known for the quality of the musicals that were seen over the ten year period. This was a decade that found blockbusters in mostly high concept action and adventure films, teen comedies, or almost anything that had Stephen Spielberg's name attached to it that wasn't titled Empires of the Sun. In fact, other than the western (which saw only a brief resurgence with the release of Clint Eastwood's High Noon and the patently ridiculous revisionist history of 1989's Young Guns), no genre was in worse shape than the modern American musical. Films like 1986's Little Shop of Horrors and 1985's A Chorus Line were middling successes at best based on fairly mediocre material, but this was also the decade that gave the world Xanadu (a 1980 disco based roller skating “epic” was a sad swan song for musical great Gene Kelly), Staying Alive (a 1983 Saturday Night Fever sequel from not-so-critically acclaimed director/famous brother Frank Stallone that managed to capture none of the charm or grit that made the original a classic), and and not one, but three movies featuring Prince playing an approximation of Prince himself.
In fact, the biggest successes of the 1980s in the musical genre were almost entirely dance based. Fame started off the decade in 1980 as a sleeper success and became a television series two years later. 1987's Dirty Dancing is probably the most recognizable of these films and still generates a cult audience to this day despite having a very nostalgic viewpoint of the 1950s. Flashdance and Footloose are two films that I often get confused, but somehow people are able to tell them apart. However, the films that stick out in my mind the most when I think of musicals made in the 1980s are Breakin' and it's sequel Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo, both of which were released in 1984. These films belonged to a subgenre of urban dance musicals that included such films as Wild Style (1983), Beat Street (1984), and Rappin' (1985) that served studios trying to exploit the emergence of hip-hop culture and to a lesser extent the viability of breakdancing as an art form. However, despite their trappings as exploitation fare, both Breakin' films function quite well as musicals with the first film positing itself as a dance film for a particular generation at a certain time and the sequel functioning as more of a musical in the “traditional” sense of the term.
Before getting into the films, however, I feel a brief history lesson is in order to better understand my appreciation of two films that many scholars would scoff at, let alone analyze. The Breakin' films were distributed in the United States by genre divisions of major studios; MGM's short lived Diamond Jubilee for the first film and Columbia's Tri-Star Pictures for the sequel. Both films, however, were made by the same production company: The Cannon Group.
The Cannon Group is not a company that inspires much faith in the product that follows the company logo. In fact, Cannon was responsible for some of the lowest budgeted schlock of the 1980s. Cannon was home to almost every Chuck Norris film made during the decade, a film adaptation of Masters of the Universe that almost bankrupted the company from rights issues alone, and movies with simplistic “say it all” titles like Hot T-Shirts and Crack House. In fact, Cannon really only had three real “prestige” films: an avant-garde adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear from Jean Luc Godard, Runaway Train (an existentialist action film based on an unproduced screenplay from Akira Kurisawa), and Barfly (based on the writings of Charles Bukowski). Breakin' most certainly falls into the more populist entertainment produced by The Cannon Group, but what makes it an even stranger case is the fact that a movie depicting “inner city living” was produced and directed by Orthodox Jewish men and not by someone who could truly give any necessary dramatic weight to the films.
Cannon was run by Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan (Yoram's cousin, who changed his name from Globus in a fit of nationalism following the storming of the Golan Heights), a pair of businessmen who came to symbolize in many ways the filmmaking ethos of the 1980s. They made movies fast and cheap, but were not afraid to take risks and cash in on admittedly marginal fads and trends. Golan and Globus began their careers as producers of Israeli films and international distributors of soft core pornography from Europe. When they relocated their base of operations from Israel to London and later to Los Angeles, they brought with them a stable of directors that had worked with them previously on Israeli productions. The directors of the two Breakin' films, Joel Silberg and Sam Firstenberg, respectively, had worked on many Cannon projects before their work on these films. However, their experience was mostly based in making action films, not musicals. This generally seems to account for the frantic style and unusually fast pacing that both films suffer from (the sequel in particular).
What the Breakin' films did get right, however, is the casting of established dancers and physical performers in the lead roles. Both films center around a young woman named Kelly, played by gymnast Lucinda Dickey, trying to make it as a dancer and her relationship with two “street dancers” named Turbo and Ozone. These characters are played, respectively, by Adolfo “Shabba-Doo” Quinones and Michael “Boogaloo Shrimp” Chambers. Quinones is generally regarded as the father of the “pop and lock” style of dancing, incorporating elements of proper breakdancing and voguing together. He was also the founding member of Los Angeles' first and possibly best known professional dance crew, The Original Lockers, and he would go on to choreograph dance routines for a wide array of artists from Michael Jackson to Frank Sinatra. Chambers was the innovator of a dance that would survive to this day for better or worse: the robot and a more spastic variation of it known as the Electric Boogaloo. Essentially, these films are much like Lars Von Trier's Dancer in the Dark or Curtis Hanson's 8 Mile where not much acting is involved from the leads since they are essentially playing slightly fictionalized versions of themselves.
The first scene of Breakin' (following a dance montage that actually includes footage that will be seen later in the film) shows Kelly daydreaming while working in a restaurant. An unnamed friend of Kelly's comes in and quite bluntly asks her why she isn't dancing anymore. Kelly responds by saying that she quite simply has lost the desire to dance and she feels as if there is nothing new for her to learn. It doesn't seem to help much that in the following scene we see Kelly in a dance class run by a tyrannical and lecherous dance instructor who not too subtly insinuates that Kelly go on a date with him to further her career.
It is in this opening scene and before any musical numbers take place that Breakin' makes itself known as a show musical and fairy tale musical at the same time. Kelly is trying desperately to follow her dreams and become successful as a dancer, yet the restaurant she works in is typical of Hollywood depictions of Los Angeles to this day. It is a greasy spoon diner with tacky outdated Pepsi ads that look out of place even in 1984. The soundtrack plays a musical strain as Kelly surveys the world around her, giving her a moment kind of akin to the opening scenes of The Wizard of Oz. Even her interactions with her friends and colleagues are reminiscent of the decade's earlier hits, Fame and Flashdance. This wistful desire for something more out of life drives the story even further when Kelly is coaxed by one of her friends to meet a pair of street dancers, and their dreams seem quite similar, and in many ways more professional than those of the “established” dancers in the opening scene.
The first musical number in Breakin' generally sets a tone this film will stick to for the remainder of it's running time. Much like many set ups for a Fairy Tale musical, the audience is introduced to the characters mid-story. When Kelly arrives at a beach front setting, she is well aware that she is not in for a standard dance recital and is instead watching a “battle” between dancers taking place in the middle of the street. Kelly attempts to dance with Ozone and the more cautious and reserved Turbo, but is interrupted and asked to step aside by a member of a rival dance crew named Electro Rock. The members of this dance crew are all recognizable to the audience, but are never given any names or speaking lines. These nameless and faceless villains are always on hand in this film to subject our heroes to challenge dances that will later prove their worth, not only as dancers, but as men and women as well.
These nameless villains also function as something bigger than the simply symbolize on screen. They are a part of a larger world that seems to not want to see our heroes succeed and realize their dreams. The heroes, however, in the scene following the opening dance make their different views of the world known to the audience. Turbo is very cautious and withdrawn around Kelly and seemingly wants nothing to do with her. He is a square peg that refuses to fit into any round holes and later in the film at a high society banquet we see that despite his fun loving jovial nature around his friends, he still looks for respect as a dancer despite prejudices to his skin color and his style of dance that is looked down upon as not being serious enough to be seen as a discipline. Ozone is highly ambitious and motivated, but is also quite complacent with his societal roles. Breakdancing makes Ozone happy in the moment, but he doesn't seem to have the confidence to believe he could make a serious career out of it. Kelly is the outside observer that sees real potential in the art of street dancing. This is where she rediscovers her love of dance.
The next major dance number is probably the film's most iconic and only involves a single character. We see Turbo and Ozone living their daily lives as clerks in a convenience store. Here the role of daydreamer falls to Turbo who is talking into a mirror and mimicking an acceptance speech as Ozone chides him and tells him to go outside and sweep up in front of the store. Before begrudgingly agreeing to the task Ozone asks Turbo if he thinks he is Fred Astaire. Turbo responds by showing he has no idea who Fred Astaire is. This is a clever joke since the scene we are about to see is almost straight out of an Astaire and Rogers musical from the late 1930s.
The “broom dance” as it is called involves Turbo dancing on his own with a broom as a partner in front of the store. The store is very clearly a “big white stage” in the truest sense of the word. This is unlike any storefront you are likely to see anywhere. The bricks on the street are very clearly meant for dancing on and until the plot needs to reconvene at the end, the streets are devoid of people. Turbo is now in his own world performing a solo dance that acts as a realization of the daydream he seemed to be having in the mirror. Astaire's specter hangs quite large over this dance in light of the preceding scene. After all, Astaire never really needed a partner to dazzle an audience. Here all Turbo needs is a broom and some camera and editing tricks that make it seem as if the broom has come to life a la Fantasia and Micky Mouse in The Sorcerer's Aprentice.
It is shortly after this scene, however, that Breakin' begins to lose its focus and tries to take on a few too many issues at once and ends up having two conclusions. After being humiliated by Electro Rock in a dance battle set in a club (presided over by a very young and not yet potty mouthed Ice-T) due to the presence of a new female dancer joining their rivals, Turbo and Ozone agree to teach Kelly how to dance by their rules and how to essentially unlearn what she has learned from her more formal training. This is shown as a montage of various dance moves that pulls the curtain back a bit to show the audience just the amount of work and effort required to properly function as a street dancer. From here on out, the dream for Kelly is realized, and thusly the film becomes a backstage musical. Unfortunately, it becomes two separate backstage musicals vying for the same amount of screen time.
The film is not only content to focus on the plot at hand of Turbo, Kelly, and Ozone, now known as TKO, taking on Electro Rock in a rematch, but also tries to a varying degree of success to take on topics of gender and class equality by introducing Kelly's agent (played by character actor Christopher McDonald) as a character who is attempting to get work for Kelly and her new friends. Turbo and Ozone are introduced to Kelly's former dance instructor at a high society party where the guests seem to be exclusively white. The two black characters are looked down upon as outcasts and misfits instead of the hard working (yet fun loving) dancers the film has portrayed them as and the one lead female character is made to look like a fool for trying to follow in their footsteps. This kind of class distinction sub-plot was very common in films of the Reagan era. Many films of the 1980s tended to show elements of how life was never as rosy as the government made it out to be. Civil rights issues still remained and thanks to the recent opposition of the Equal Rights Amendment, issues of women in the workplace were also a common trope of many genre films.
This conflict leads to the film's penultimate dance number where Kelly's agent has arranged to have TKO audition in secret for a part in an upcoming and unspecified dance spectacular. The leads are all dressed in tuxedos with top hats and tails. Again, we are treated to more Fred Astaire imagery as the group is set to perform a jazz number (or a variation thereof) to music from the 1935 film Top Hat. Just after the audience hears the familiar strains of “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails” the dancers are stopped by Kelly's former instructor who is also leading a dance troupe that is going out for the same part. The directors and judges disqualify our heroes simply because they are not “serious” dancers and they are forced to do things their own way and dance despite pleas for them to stop. I always found this part to be quite clever. The very people who seem to espouse the virtues of dancers like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly are suddenly trying to stop a variation of some “classic” material.
The outcome of Breakin' is never really in any sort of doubt. The leads don't get the part they auditioned for, but instead get their own stage show and the film shows us the first number of the new production set on a stage, but to the same song that opened the film. But what come almost immediately after this final number and just before the credits should have been cause for concern. Breakin' advertises its own sequel during the credits. Electric Boogaloo was already greenlit by Cannon before Breakin' even became the modest hit that it was. Ever since this moment, adding “electric boogaloo” to a title of a sequel became an often parodied joke signifying any sequel that could be seen as facetious.
In some ways Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo, released a mere seven months after the original, symbolizes the worst that The Cannon Group has to offer. Original director Joel Silberg was replaced by Sam Firstenberg, who between the production of the two Breakin' films directed actress Lucinda Dickey in a grade-Z action film titled Ninja 3: The Domination and pretty much got the job directing a musical based on the fact that he was available at the time and under contract with Cannon. While these facts severely tarnish the quality of the film itself, Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo differs from it's predecessor in one major way. Electric Boogaloo is an actual musical in the truest sense of the word.
Electric Boogaloo can be summed up in a single sentence like many great musicals. Turbo, Kelly, and Ozone reunite to raise the money needed to save a community center from demolition by an evil developer bent on building a new shopping mall. The “message” of the film is no longer one of self realization in the face of prejudice and adversity, but an overly simplified polemic against the ongoing gentrification of inner city neighborhoods in the name of the “greater good.” The plot of the film is so arbitrary that it barely registers with the viewer. Simplifying things might have been a good way to cover up the fact that the film is a “rush job” in every sense of the term, but making the film a flat out musical and almost detaching itself from the reality of the first film makes the decision seem quite brilliant. This film makes the original Breakin' seem like gritty realism in comparison.
The film's first musical number comes when Kelly returns to the inner city from her privledged parents' house to visit her old friends. Immediately the soundtrack breaks out into song and everyone around them starts dancing in some fashion. Not just the people seen as actual dancers, but mailmen and a random clown that will continually appear throughout the film for absolutely no reason. Electro Rock has returned, but they no longer formally battle, instead they roam the streets like a gang from West Side Story just waiting to pick a dance fight with someone. Turbo has another solo dance sequence where he dances all around the room, including on the walls and ceilings. And then there is the hospital sequence.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the hospital sequence in Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo because I believe it to be one of the best examples of camp I have ever seen, but it also is the best of example of how the film functions as a “pure” musical. Occurring just after Turbo breaks his leg falling down a flight of stairs in a tussle with the evil land developer, the film uses the sights and sounds of a hospital to stage an elaborate dance number. When Kelly, Ozone, the random clown, the random girl who is stalking Turbo, a cast of nurses and orderlies, and pretty much every kid from the youth center show up to seemingly will Turbo out of his broken leg induced coma (which the film gives no explanation for), the viewer knows that they are in for some sort of musical number.
The scene begins with a very clear audio dissolve, using the everyday sounds of a hospital (heart monitors, intercoms, and ventilators) to gradually establish a beat for the cast to dance to. Then, Kelly and Ozone don medical garb and begin the dance, which takes them throughout the halls of the hospital; pushing their friend around on a gurney and even stopping to watch a completely unrelated surgery patient die and then be brought back to life through the power of dance. In fact, this scene, like many dance numbers found in Breakin' 2, is actually quite light on breakdancing and showcases numerous dancing styles. This is really a film that is a throwback to the old time musicals that audiences seem to have abandoned by the 1980s. It is admittedly a terrible film, but a great example of how modern musicals tended to take their cues from the great films of the past.
The 1980s have always a been a key part of my interest in film and have shaped my research interests for the foreseeable future. It is my opinion that there are numerous marginalized genre films from this era that warrant a second look and that are worthy of a scholarly analysis and critique. In their time, the Breakin' films were seen as simply cashing in on a fad. It is my belief that at some point these very fads shape cultural history as a whole. When you look back at the influence that the films of Fred Astaire and Grace Kelly had on Breakin' it shows how the film musical is cyclical. The dance films of the 30s and 40s directly gave rise to the dance films of the 1980s. Even the dance films of the 1980s have given rise to a new glut of dance films since the late 90s that has lated until today. You Got Served is actually almost the exact same film as Breakin' minus an actual female lead. Street dancing has evolved into something much more culturally relevant thanks to reality television shows like America's Best Dance Crew and So You Think You Can Dance? (of which Adolofo Quinones is an executive producer) and the success of films like Step Up and Stomp the Yard. It is hard to look at the success of these films and television shows without realizing the impact that Breakin' had in the 1980s. Just as it was hard to see that Turbo and Ozone could not have enjoyed the success they had without Fred and Ginger.