Just another cut-and-dried 3D street dance movie for the pile? Think again...
Just as it'd be churlish to entirely dismiss a Busby Berkeley musical extravaganza for its thin characters, questionable performances and hackneyed plot line, so too would it be slightly missing the point to level similar criticisms at Ben Gregor's sporadically astonishing London-set street dance movie, All Stars.
In line with those beloved studio classics of yore, the film is an unabashedly jolly 'putting on a show' yarn, involving a gang of plucky pre-teens who organise a charity talent show to save an East London youth club which, strangely, is decked out like a middle-rung artist's New York loft apartment.
There are rivalries, love interests, economic dilemmas and even a rousing anti-capitalist polemic as intoned by the club's lovably ditzy manager, Ashley Jensen. But this low-originality set-up is only in place as an excuse for Gregor to execute a series of dance sequences that would've likely had Bob Fosse weeping into his Golden Grahams.
The first involves the pint-sized Akai Osei-Mansfield who plays Jaden, a dance prodigy whose parents have – Footloose-style – banned him from any dance-related activity so he's able to channel his energies into the entry exam for some Eton-like secondary school. (Some nice ironic casting of the parents here, as they're played by Ashley Walters and Javine Hylton, both of whom started their career as pop singers/dancers).
Jaden is at the club and there's no-one around. He sees this is a moment to release all that bottled-up creativity and so turns on some music and begins to bop. His moves are sensational, especially for one so young: he's agile and precise, mixing jarring, geometric arm movements that find a clever use for every joint, with more acrobatic break-dance gyrations.
Gregor's decision to photograph Osei-Mansfield in a single unbroken long shot pays dividends, as you're not only able to witness his entire body working in unison, but the mere fact that this kid is actually there performing an entire routine that hasn't been cobbled together in the edit makes for an overwhelmingly emotional spectacle. The 3D comes into its own during these long takes, it enhances the viewing experience in the same way it did for Wim Wenders' superlative dance documentary Pina.
Five minutes have barely elapsed before Gregor has pulled another extraordinary dance set-piece out of his hat, though this one is nothing like the first. Framed as Jaden's flight of fancy while watching a chum playing on a retro computer game, the scene is built around various lengths of neon rope which brilliantly emulate a real-life version of Space Invaders. Again, it's the sort of thing we'd expect from Michel Gondry if he'd decided to pull out all the creative stops.
The final scene worth mentioning sees Jaden entering once more into his own (increasingly bizarre) subconscious and doing battle with a trio of Origami shogun warriors (?!) in some ornate woodland clearing. As a piece of production design, the scene displays immense economy and ingenuity, especially in making very few physical tools work very hard for the camera. The choreography is, again, second to none.
Though the film as a whole operates admirably as a family-oriented 3D bonanza, it's far more impressive and worthwhile as a work which celebrates the physical and mental vibrancy youth. The dance sequences here are diverse, innovative and – in the case of once brilliant scene in which a young girl dreams about dancing with her chronically depressed father – extremely moving. Bravo to all concerned.
It must be that time of year again where we get a British street dance movie for our collective delectation.
Hold the phone. A charming family entertainment with a clutch of seriously astonishing and visually ingenious dance numbers.
Very excited to see what director Ben Gregor does next.