Review: Stomp the Yard

Any film that tries to sell the idea that there is a hardcore dance underground out there just makes me giggle. We have drugs, gangs, guns, and rock n' roll ... but dancing is a form of street toughness? What's next, to-the-death tickle matches?

DJ (choreographer Columbus Short) is still reeling over the murder of his brother in a dance battle between two gangs that ended in tragedy. Sent from L.A. to Georgia, DJ is given a second chance by his Uncle (Harry Lennix) to work off his debt to society and attend Truth University, an elite African-American college. Once there, DJ learns about the world of Stepping, a special traditional dance that the fraternities and sororities use to battle for campus supremacy.

"Stomp the Yard" (IMDb listing) will surely be compared to "You Got Served," and it has every right to be. It's hard to shake the cash-in feeling coating the film: it's another PG-13 dance-world drama that uses editing to cover the dance requirements and features uberhip African-American actors who all shop at the "'lil thug'' department at Nordstrom.

Despite its flaws, "You Got Served" used high-energy to save itself and "Stomp" shares the same vibe. It even manages to get by despite the suffocating direction of Sylvain White. A music video vet with a wealth of deadly visual touches, White doesn't know a thing about putting together a moment of dramatic or artistic authenticity. He's all gloss and needless camera movement, forgetting that the Stepping traditions entranced audiences because they were acts of unique movement and choreography, not artificial flashdance. White prefers big screen handheld camerawork spasms and editing chaos, rap-video style, absent the Cristal and booty girls.

It'll take every once of willpower to not run out of the theater screaming during the opening underground dance battle, which White makes look like David LaChapelle's id exploded in an abandoned snuff film set, complete with one onlooker dressed up in a furry bunny suit. Why? Because White can.

The rest of the picture fares much better, including some nice performances from the cast, and a strong evocation of collegiate history and fraternal commitment. When it can concentrate on the bigger picture, "Stomp" desires to be a vessel of inspiration to young African-American audiences, none-too-subtly pushing the theme of education when it can find the time to. It's an unusually positive film with some good messages buried deep in the mix. And I mean deep.

All the Martin Luther King Jr. quotes and Rosa Parks pictures can't stop "Stomp" from becoming an unbearable creature of melodrama in the final 30 minutes. It just isn't enough to have DJ battling his fellow dancers, he must also engage in a "Romeo and Juliet" romance while fending off the prejudices of the school board. For a film about dance, this is too much to deal with. You can sense in White's increasingly skittish direction that he can't process any of this.

"Stomp" gets sloppy as it freefalls to a conclusion. It almost comes as a relief when the film steps away from absurd melodrama and heads back to the dancing. Again softening the brain with KISS-style stage fireworks and Hype Williams-influenced cinematography, "Stomp" returns to the doofy, pre-teen-pleasing dance movie it was always intended to be.

Filmfodder Grade: C+