On the commentary track, director Sylvain White says he went to California, Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, and other southern states in order to interview real college step teams and learn "who had the hot moves, who's the baddest, and who's the best." He also studied dance movies for the last 20 years and decided that he wanted to film inside the dance instead of from the usual perspective of the audience. In other words, he did more research than most graduate students.
It's just too bad that he didn't choose to film a documentary instead of another clichéd drama about a "bad" boy who's sent to live with his uncle and aunt to straighten him out after his brother is killed in an underground L.A. step competition that goes bad.
That's right. Underground. As if to suggest it's just as hide-from-the-cops illegal as a cock fight or dog fight, White shows an image of the two step teams' vicious mutts straining at the leash to get at each other. And if this is an accurate depiction of the way things play out on the streets, it's pretty much like two gangs getting together and using their whole bodies to flip each other off, up close and personal. Big surprise that a fight breaks out. One thing's for sure: you know that the culture is a violent one when even the dances are forms of aggression and hostility.
If you've seen "You Got Served," then you pretty much know what this film is about. In fact, even if you watched "Breakin'" 20 years ago, you still have a good idea what this film is about. It's about respect, and finding respect though dance. It's about proving yourself through urban dance competitions. And it's about a boring and hackneyed storyline getting in the way of some incredible dance sequences that would have been more fun and more interesting without the tired melodrama.
If you haven't seen "steppin'" before, picture a cross between break dancing and military-style chanting and line movement, with a little hip-hop and acrobatics thrown in for good measure. A "stepmaster" or lead dancer is at the head of the pack faces off against the other stepmaster, while the two groups take turns presenting in-your-face dances (some of which actually include extended middle fingers in impressive choreography) and then the presentations kind of blur . . . until one wins the crowd or emcee over, or else a fight breaks out. Money can be involved when it's done on the street, which is why the main character's brother is killed in the opening sequence. But on college campuses, bragging rights and trophies are the goal as fraternities square off in steppin' competitions.
This one opens in typical "gangsta" fashion, with DJ (Columbus Short) pushing his brother to "dis" a rival team on their home court, and to "double up on these niggers" in the betting department. They win, but walking home they're jumped by the rivals and DJ's brother is shot. Next thing you know he's on a train to Atlanta, where he's read the riot act by his Uncle Nate (Harry J. Lennix), who's in charge of the grounds crew at Truth University and used his pull to get his nephew in school and on gardening detail. Is it a cliché? Yep. Even somebody as square as Pat Boone was sent to his aunt and uncle's place in Indiana to straighten out, and that film was so forgettable that it's nowhere to be found now. What's worse here is that while he's registering (What's up with the long lines? Doesn't everyone register online these days?) he sees a pretty coed who just happens to be the girlfriend of the star stepper of the Mu Gamma Xi fraternity team, and falls in love at first sight. So if the Mu Gams and their good-guy rivals, the Theta Nu Thetas, remind you just a little bit of "West Side Story," it's not just because of the gangs dancing rather than slicing each other up. It's also this love story.
But the thing is, the love story isn't developed much, there's not much of a back story on DJ, and there's virtually no exploration of some of the culture that would generate such a hostile art form as "steppin'" . . . or is it really a milder and more peaceful form of gang warfare? That probably depends on who's watching. DJ's the rebel who's not into studying, and April (Meagan Good) isn't just the brain who's coincidentally assigned to be his tutor (come on!). She's also the daughter of the provost (Allan Louis), who wants his daughter dating a winner like Grant (Darrin Dewitt He) instead of a loser like DJ. But just when you thought the coincidences couldn't be stacked any higher without the whole thing falling over, in one of the film's climactic moments we learn that one of the reasons why the provost has it in for DJ is that he was dating DJ's aunt before his uncle won her over. There's a little class snobbishness here, but that's as deep as it gets. And curiously, for all the bitterness of the dance competitions, there's very little in the way of obstacles or real stumbling blocks in this film. In that respect, "Stomp the Yard" is as narratively straightforward and happy-faced as "Leave It To Beaver" or any of the '50s sitcoms.
But the dances themselves? They reflect an athleticism that rivals Olympic athletes, and a gracefulness that somehow stands out despite all the insults and pushing. On the commentary track, White says that he used some of the best real college steppers for these sequences. As I said, it's just too bad that the director, whose forte is music videos, didn't explore this dance form as a documentary. Everything else just weighs it down. Even at that, I'm not sure that I approve of White's decision to film the dance sequences using what he termed a "skinny" shutter, which makes the dances look as if a strobe light is on them, as if they've been sped up or with frames missing--the kind of technique you usually see when a director is trying to cover up for actors who aren't really able to do the physical stunts. Here, though, Short does do his own stunts, and as we see on the deleted and extended scenes which don't incorporate that skinny shutter, the dancers really are doing their own moves. It's just that this technique makes everything seem suspect, because we've seen it used before as a cover-up.
I have no complaints about the picture quality, though. In Blu-ray, "Stomp the Yard" looks sharper than cool, though the early dance scenes do have a little extra grain thrown in on purpose to give them a harder edge. The 1080p picture features bright, pleasantly saturated colors, distinct edges, and plenty of detail. "Stomp the Yard" is presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio.
I frankly can't imagine this film having the same energy during the dance sequences without a powerful English PCM uncompressed 5.1 soundtrack. For me, it's the soundtrack on films like this that make you want to like it, in spite of all its deficiencies. And I did. For the time that the film focused on dance. The bass is rich and booming, and the treble has a nice spread across the room. Another option on this disc is English Dolby TrueHD 5.1, which is the first time I've seen this on Blu-ray.
I know that HD fans have been clamoring for Blu-ray to feature TrueHD, but to be honest, I couldn't tell the difference between the two. The PCM and TrueHD are both pretty phenomenal. I'm sure that audiophiles can detect slight differences, or maybe there are noticeable differences on the spec sheets that detail the audio capabilities. But you know what? I'm a movie lover, plain and simple. I like my movies to look and sound as sharp as they can. I'm a perfectionist, and this disc gives two options that pretty much hit the mark.
A third audio option is French Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English, English SDH, French, Chinese, Thai, Spanish, Portuguese, and Korean.
If you can get through the commentary track without yawning, you're a better person than I am. White is joined by several cronies, including his editor, but their remarks are so devoid of energy that you wonder if this was the same guy who got right there on the dance floor with his camera and filmed the sequences himself. True! There's some decent information and insights here, but you have to listen to a lot of not terribly interesting stuff to get to it, and survive THE MONOTONE.
There's a 20-minute making-of feature titled "Battles, Rivals, & Brothers" that's not bad, but it never really goes into any detail or depth--almost as if it were intended as a teaser, and nothing more. Other than that, there's a gag reel that's less than two minutes long (but interesting because an obviously embarrassed Good receives a call on her cell phone that interrupts one scene), and three deleted/extended dance/musical scenes that run six minutes total. But of interest here is that the "skinny" shutter wasn't employed yet, and you can see the dancers move more fluidly than in the film sequences.
If only director Sylvain White, who cut his teeth on music videos, would have made an extended music video or documentary. The dance sequences are strong, but everything else is weak. Like, I can't pick up this pencil, much less dance, weak.