" She came at me in sections. More curves than a scenic railway. "
— Fred Astaire, The Bandwagon

MRQE Top Critic

Almost Famous

Director Cameron Crowe extends his autobiographical homage to 70s rock —Risë Keller (DVD review...)

Patrick Fugit is Almost Famous

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In 1997, a charming little Japanese movie made its way into American theaters. Set in modern Japan, Shall We Dance? looked at a handful of men who signed up for ballroom dancing lessons, in spite of a cultural taboo against dancing.

We don’t have the same cultural taboo, and this remake’s budget dwarfs that of the Japanese original, so the film is necessarily different. But the underlying plot is the same, and the comic sweetness is the same, too.

Dance, Boy, Dance

Lopez teaches Gere about Grace
Lopez teaches Gere about Grace
Director Peter Chelsom knows what to do with DVD
Director Peter Chelsom knows what to do with DVD

Richard Gere plays John Clark, a successful lawyer who one day looks up from the subway at a forlorn face (Jennifer Lopez) looking out of a dance studio window. John decides on a whim to look at this woman more closely, and he ends up signing up for lessons. Of course, he doesn’t tell his wife (Susan Sarandon).

Eventually Paulina (Lopez) notices John’s constant stares, and she confronts him. Don’t come back to class if you’re coming just for me, she says. There is nothing else for John to do except return to class and focus on the dancing.

Inevitably this film is compared to its predecessor, and it simply can’t win. The original sentiment gets lost in translation from Japanese to American. It’s also diluted by the Hollywood conformity index, that says the more money risked on a movie, the less original the movie is allowed to be.

Nevertheless, looking at both movies again on DVD, I have a new appreciation for the much-panned remake. I had said the dancing wasn’t as good in the remake, when in fact, it’s probably better. And my fond memories of the Japanese film held up much better than the actual footage did. Of the two movies, the American remake really is much better looking (of course, it had a much higher budget). I still recommend the original if it’s an either/or proposition, but I’m less cynical about the remake, having seen both on home video.

DVD Extras

In his audio commentary, director Peter Chelsom repeats much of what he told me (and probably a hundred others) in an interview last fall. While he’s not any more informative than your average director providing commentary, he does have some candor and a knack for storytelling. He admits that this is an “American” remake with a bigger budget, and that certain rules and conventions apply. He has no illusions that his film is anything but a crowd-pleaser.

Chelsom also understands what a DVD is good for. He proudly mentions that some of the dance scenes he really liked but had to cut are available elsewhere on the DVD. One wonders if directors are less heartsick at cutting favorite scenes when they know they can include them as extra features. If they know the footage will not be lost in a studio vault, somewhere, perhaps they’ll be more willing to shorten a too-long scene. Indeed, some of the deleted scenes are actually quite entertaining. A scene of Stanley Tucci dancing with Lisa Ann Walter might as well have stayed in, for my tastes.

There are also three featurettes: one on the dancing, one on the music, and one generically behind the scenes. (The extra features on this DVD were shortened and edited together to make the extra feature on the original movie’s DVD, even though they had nothing to do with the Japanese original.) While these are mostly watchable, the DVD producers spend a little too much time ogling The Pussycat Dolls, an all-female song-and-dance group that contributed a song to the soundtrack. A more relevant, more interesting feature would have looked at the GoTan Project, which provided some of the French house/tango music for the film, but I guess they can’t compete with pouty, airbrushed, chorus girls.

Picture and Sound

Not surprisingly, picture and sound are both very good, particularly compared to the original film. Again, it’s the budget. This film could afford great incidental music and wonderful cinematography, and it shows on your home video system. The film is presented in its 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and the sound is encoded in Dolby Digital.