Vital Signs

Dancing a Narrow (Party) Line

The tradition of the American musical film is a grand one, reaching back as it does to the great days of Busby Berkeley, of Astaire and Rogers, of Dick Powell and ZaSu Pitts. It suffers from one defect, inherent in its genre: how to find a plausible or at least not risible plot to tie together the songs and dances. In recent years, as audience tastes have grown less sophisticated—less capable of comprehending generic differences and more demanding of simple realism—the musical has fallen on hard times. Clint Eastwood and Robert Duvall will play a country singer or a fan who frequents country music bars. Barbra Streisand sang her songs as voice-overs to her characters' thinking, much as Laurence Olivier did the soliloquies in his Hamlet.

In White Nights Taylor Hackford has returned to the older tradition of musicals, the tradition of fitting the musical numbers into plans for a new show. The context of the show is rather different from the motif we have grown to know and love from the days of Babes on Broadway or Forty-Second Street. Mikhail Baryshnikov is a great Russian ballet dancer who defected to the West's freedom and wealth; Gregory Hines is a Black American tap dancer who deserted to Russia from our army in Vietnam. Baryshnikov's flight from London to Tokyo crashlands in Russia. (The plane crash, incidentally, is very well directed. No one who sees what happens to Baryshnikov...

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