Tap [50 New-Old Movies for the 51st Year #38]

Mid-last year, I turned 50 years old!  And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of my life (thus the “Old-New” terminology), and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #38.  Spoilers ahead.  


Directed by Nick Castle

Release Date:  February 10, 1989
My age then:  18 years old

What it is about:  Gifted tap dancer Max Washington comes out of jail after a failed robbery and tries to put his life back together. He rekindles a relationship with dance teacher Amy, who wants to help him get a job with a Broadway director she knows. But Amy’s father Little Mo also wants Nick to headline his new idea for a fusion of tap and modern rock music. Meanwhile, Nick is tempted back into a life of crime by his former criminal contacts, and finds himself working with the a gangster named Nicky, with whom he has a troubled history–each of them blaming the other for the incident that resulted in Max’s arrest.

Starring Gregory Hines as Max, Suzzanne Douglas as Amy, and Sammy Davis Jr. as Little Mo. Also starring Savion Glover as Louis (Amy’s son), Joe Morton as Nicky, Dick Anthony Williams as Francis (another gangster), and Howard “Sandman” Sims as Sandman, another old dancer and friend of Little Mo’s. The movie features cameos by a bunch of famous tap dancers as well, mentioned below.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I was pretty confused about this movie–I wasn’t sure if it was a crime film, a musical, a comedy or a drama.

Reality: Well, it turns out that I was right, sort of. Tap is a crime movie, and a musical, and certainly a drama and even has bits of comedy. One would think with all that going on that it would also be a bit of a mess but it’s not. Nick Castle (directing his own screenplay) pulls all these elements together in a most successful way, delivering an effective and believable urban drama. Gregory Hines is an actor I’ve more heard of than I am familiar with, but he’s a solid screen presence who manages to give the hardened Max enough sympathy to keep him engaging.

The rest of the cast is also good. Suzzanne Douglas holds her own as Max’s leading lady Amy, and Savion Glover is good as Amy’s son Louis–the sort of part that could have easily been precocious and annoying but isnt at all. I was also impressed by Joe Morton as Max’s enemy-in-crime, who makes a surprisingly authentic crazy person, and Terrence E. McNally who goes uncredited as Bob, an annoying Broadway director. And of course, it’s great to see Sammy Davis jr. in his last feature film role, doing his thing.

But the real notable feature of Tap is the dancing itself. Gregory Hines is a great tap dancer (according to my untrained eye) and the film takes full advantage of that talent. The camera wisely frames the dancing moments in full shots, or images that highlight the performers’ feet, understanding that that is what we want to see. There are numerous excellent numbers, including an opening while Max is waiting to be released from prison, and big concert performance that he does at the end. Hines is credited in the film as “Improvographer,” something I’ve never seen before, so I presume he developed a lot of his own routines.

The highlight of highlights is without a doubt the “challenge” scene, less than halfway through. Max good-naturedly insults Little Mo, and so Little Mo quickly gathers his friends to prove to him that they still have their dancing legs. And so run into the studio a host of old great tap dancers–Arthur Duncan, Bunny Briggs, Steve Condos, Jimmy Slylde and Harold Nicholas. Now, I’m not a tap expert and I don’t know anything about its history, so these guys are not people I’m familiar with (mostly, see below). But watching these old-timers prove that they still know there stuff as each one of them takes a successive solo is a real treat. There is amazing tap dancing genius on the screen, all in one extended sequence–counting of course main cast members Gregory Hines, Howard “Sandman” Sims and of course Sammy Davis jr.

The one of those old cameos that I am familiar with, at least a little bit, is Harold Nicholas, who danced with his brother Floyd as part of the Nicholas Brothers in the 1930’s and 40’s and beyond, leaving a powerful impression through their acrobatic flash dancing. They did a bunch of impressive numbers in different movies that one can ind by scouring Youtube, including a piece in the film Stormy Weather which Fred Astaire apparently called the greatest dance number ever filmed. I’ll share it below. Watch it and prepare to be amazed:

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? Tap is a strong film that does well in all of its purported genres, and comes off as surprisingly undated to the modern audience.

See here for the Master List.

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