Anyone who’s ever met me knows I’m not a dancer, and anyone who’s seen my picture would probably assume the same. So maybe I’m not the target demographic for a documentary about the significance of the modern swing dance movement. Still, I didn’t expect to be so thoroughly disappointed by Alive and Kicking, a doc whose heart is in the right place even if its style and structure are not.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I did go through a swing phase in the late ’90s when, as the film points out, so did the rest of the world. Needless to say, I got over it. Apparently, director Susan Glatzer did not, as her documentary often feels less like an attempt to understand this revival of big band music and archaic forms of dance than to justify its continued existence to a crowd of nonbelievers. Glatzer seems less interested in examining her subject through an objective lens than protesting its relevance through rose-colored glasses, and her inherent bias often interferes with the facts on display.
The film follows a small coterie of good-looking dancers from around they world as they explain the vicissitudes of pursuing their passion for swing while most hold down day jobs or eke out a living as dance instructors. These character studies are interspersed with historical information and insight from some of the early icons from the original era of swing’s prominence, including Frankie Manning and Norma Miller, whose remarkably choreographed routine from HC Potter’s bizarre (and great) musical comedy Hellzapoppin’ features among the stock footage. The historical aspects of the film are far more coherent and interesting than its meandering display of the modern competitive dance circuit, but Glatzer’s affinity for the modern community often overshadows the more compelling film that hides around the margins of Kicking.
This is perhaps the pre-eminent flaw in Glatzer’s approach as a documentarian, as her propensity to eschew factuality in favor of emotional resonance robs the film of its capacity to address some of the more interesting questions it raises. Why is a form of dance created in Harlem now practiced almost exclusively by white people? Kicking touches briefly on the issue but really only pays it lip service. Glatzer comes across as a swing apologist, focusing strictly on the positive aspects of the pursuit — one dancer suffers a severe neck injury that’s glossed over with talk of how the swing community supported her during her convalescence, while another discusses the fact that she uses her itinerant lifestyle as a traveling guest instructor as a means of avoiding emotional commitments —but none of these stories are examined in any real detail.
While the audience I screened this film with seemed to enjoy it on its own terms, I couldn’t resolve my objections to its sloppy approach to structure — questions are raised and abandoned, personal stories go unresolved, and the ending seems abrupt and relatively arbitrary. Viewers with a pre-existing attachment to swing dancing or those simply in search of an unobjectionable and warmhearted look at an obscure pop-cultural niche may find life in Kicking. Those looking for a well-constructed documentary will want to look for another partner to dance with. Not Rated. Now Playing at Grail Moviehouse.