It looks like reality programming is here to stay. Exhibit A is the effect that reality TV series have had on feature-length films. "Jig" (2011) is a prime example. This Sue Bourne documentary about the 40th Irish Dancing World Championships isn't all that far removed from Lifetime channel's "Dance Moms" . . . well, except that the parents and instructors don't act as if they're on an episode of "Jerry Springer," and there are no outbursts or fights. Everyone here is civil, as most people in the world tend to be if they haven't been coached by reality-show producers to "mix it up."
So does "Jig" suffer from a case of niceness?
I don't think so. But I do think it's duller than it could be because it stays too closely to reality-show real-time filming and pacing. The structure is the same as on reality TV, where we get shots of the people training and interacting parallel-edited with shots that show individuals talking directly into the camera about the process (and other dancers). That meandering method might work when it's real-time reality TV, but a more tightly edited version with fewer contestant story threads would have made "Jig" much more compelling to watch. This documentary clocks in at 93 minutes, and I wouldn't want it any shorter. I do, however, think it would have been a stronger film had the director made some hard choices during pre-production and settled on four contestant stories to tell, rather than incorporating as many as she does. Not only do we, out of necessity, get shallower portraits of all the contestants and instructors, but it also sets up a finale where, with so many people in so many different categories, there are multiple "climaxes" rather than a single one. That's good if we're talking about orgasms, not film.
Bourne was given unprecedented access behind the scenes at the World Championships in Glasgow, Scotland, and also in the months leading up to the competition, funded in part by BBC Scotland and Creative Scotland.
Profiled in this film are dancers dreaming to earn a world title:
John Whitehurst (age 10), from Birmingham, England, who gets a lot of film time along with his mother and teacher. John Carey, the instructor, worries about Little John's lack of concentration and tells his mom, "There's no room for error; you have to be foot-perfect." Like families that move to Florida if they have a tennis player, John's parents moved to England to help their son win.
Joe Bitter (age 16), from Birmingham, England, who also is coached by John Carey, but gets considerably less screen time. We do see his basement studio where he practices and receives private lessons.
Sandun Verschoor (a 17-year-old Sri Lankan who lives in Rotterdam, Holland), with his Dutch parents and his teacher.
Brogan McCay (age 11), from Derry, Northern Ireland, the most engaging and philosophical of the bunch.
Julia O'Rourke (age 11), from Long Island, New York, who, having lost to Brogan time and again, is determined to beat her this time.
And three older dancers who've grown up competing against each other: Claire Greaney (from Galway, Ireland), Simona Mauriello (from Essex, England), and Suzanne Coyle (from Glasgow, Scotland).
Then there's a profile of Russian dancers--Ana Kondratyeva and the Ceilidh Team from Moscow--practicing for the adult competition. Why they're even included in this documentary I'm not sure, because they didn't make the finals and there are no "rivals" for them, the way there is with the other profiles. The screen time they get--which isn't much--only takes away from time that might be better spent developing the main storylines.
"Jig" also would have been a stronger film if we got more practicing on camera and extended performances without the incessant audience cutaways or reaction shots. And as I said, it also would have been stronger if the structure was pruned so that only the young boys and the young girls were profiled, with the others brought in as interviews to add a broader perspective to the competition and what the youngsters are going through. That's where the main interest lies, and, where the focus should have been. Harsh as it sounds, storylines about the older dancers just dilute the punch.
What "Jig" does do quite well is to capture the world of Irish Dancing competitions--the hard work, the quick-as-a-hummingbird steps, the expensive costumes (try $2500 apiece, on average), and the traditional curly wigs for girls of all ages. And you know what? It's heartening to be reminded that not every competition these days is as backstabbing, trash-talking, and just plain anti-social as TV realities shows make them out to be. "Jig" gives you the passion . . . but its directed at the dance, not at others.
"Jig" gets a nice transfer (AVC/MPEG-4) to a 25-GB Blu-ray disc, with no significant compression issues. Detail is strong, colors are nicely saturated, black levels are strong, and apart from a few instances of subtle haloing and crush, it's a strong video presentation with strong edge delineation and a nice hint of 3-dimensionality. "Jig" is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen.
The audio is the industry standard English DTS-HD MA 5.1, with no subtitles. According to the "Jig" website, Oscar-nominated composer Patrick Doyle contributed original music, but it frankly gets drowned out by the dialogue and the interviews as much as the dance itself seems overshadowed by everything else. Surprisingly dialogue-driven, "Jig" has a very front-heavy soundtrack. But what's here is clear and strong and pure-sounding.
As I'm thinking the director should have pruned away some of the profiles, what do I find in the bonus features but a story thread for Chicago girl Mary Ellen Dziak in a 17-minute segment that was cut from the film. Other than that, the main extra is a feature-length commentary from teacher John Carey, a former World Champion himself, and director Bourne. They're not exactly Regis and Kelly, but the pair does mesh well, with Carey's insider expertise offset by Bourne's outsider status and way of looking at Irish Dance.
Other than that, there are just two brief featurettes: an under three-minute "Irish Dance Dresses: Interview with World Famous Costumer/Designer Gavin Doherty," and a four-minute look at a Guinness World Record attempt by 652 dancers in Nashville, Tennessee, to set a new mark for doing the jig in July of 2011.
This is a combo pack, so the Blu-ray is accompanied by a DVD.
"Jig" should appeal to dancers of all kinds, though I'm not sure how much replay value it has. Once you've seen the dancers' stories, what you really want to watch again are the dances themselves. And there just isn't enough of that.