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Twist

1991, Directed by Ron Mann.





Twist is a documentary about the popular early 1960s dance craze. Directed by Ron Mann (Comic Book Confidential), Twist combines interviews, archival footage and clips from old instructional dance films to trace different dance crazes and their effect on pop culture.

Not only is this a documentary about dance, but also rock & roll. From the sterile atmosphere of ballroom dance and music, rhythm & blues singers in Harlem began rising in popularity. Characterized by suggestive lyrics and faster, danceable beats, R & B was quickly embraced by white teens looking for something different. Repackaged as rock & roll and sold by marketing men (or DJs, if you like), white kids began to buy lots of records and even record their own songs. It wasn't long before Rock & Roll was attacked as a communist plot, and held responsible for the creation of juvenile delinquents, as Mann shows through newspaper headlines.

Dick Clark's American Bandstand is featured heavily in this film, as the dance party TV show where records and artists were made or broken. Many of the kids on the show started doing dances they had learned from other black kids, such as the Itch, the Jitterbug and the Stroll. This all comes to a head with the introduction of the Twist. Hank Ballard was the first to record "The Twist," but Dick Clark wouldn't play his record, since Hank had come from the tradition of R & B with suggestive lyrics. Since his voice was fairly indistinguishable from Ballard's, Chubby Checker re-recorded the song and made it a hit. He even appeared on American Bandstand in 1960 to perform it. While white stations wouldn't touch Ballard's version of the song, they jumped all over Checker's. Chubby modestly claims that this was because he had "the talent to make anything seem clean."

The Twist was now a national craze. Joey Dee and his dancers at the Peppermint Lounge turned out "The Peppermint Twist" to socialites and high society, and Mary Lou Park and the Parkettes out-twisted everybody back in Harlem at a dance club known as Small's. It should be no surprise that this fad became over-saturated, and then crashed and burned. Like the Macarena that followed it, soon the Twist was being used in advertising and you could buy official Twist hats and Twist-ing dolls. Mann gives us some clips from Twist movies, and some footage of Louis Prima performing "The Saints Go Twistin' In".

And so, the search for a new dance craze started. The Monkey was popularized by some Motown acts, and other attempts included the Mashed Potato, the Pony, the Hully Gully, the Watusi, the Jerk, and the Frug. Then dances got really ridiculous, such as the Elephant Walk and the Molecule-a-Go-Go, created by a physics professor where the motion of an molecule is emulated by a dancer. Mann believes that the end result of this was the freestyle dancing which started in go-go clubs in the mid-60's.

Interviews in this film include Hank Ballard, Chubby Checker, Joey Dee, Mary Lou Parks, Gladys Hurton ("Mr. Postman"), Dee Dee Sharp ("Mashed Potato" ) as well as several dancers. I was surprised to see that Hank Ballard was so pleased to see that Chubby Checker made it big with his song I expected him to be somewhat bitter. The best (and most Canadian) part of this film is some footage of Marshall McLuhan discussing the Twist on TV. He says that despite the protest over the dance, he finds it un-sexy and describes it as a "conversation without words." He even says that he has been known to do the Twist!

What I like about Mann's documentary style is that he never uses the cheesy Hollywood method of trying to show something by taking a group of people and then focusing on the individual experience of one as a representative of everyone else. While it may be easier for documentary makers to portray broad concepts this way, this technique is both misleading and irresponsible. Mann recognizes that one person cannot embody the feelings of everyone, and that there are many factors which kickstart the evolution of popular culture. His style in this film is similar to Comic Book Confidential, but that's a good thing, as both documentaries give an unbiased and comprehensive history lesson on their respective subjects.

Mann organizes this film in terms of 7 "lessons," which start with footage from instructional dance shows. The first is of Ballroom dance, and by the end, adults are trying to do the Monkey. Of course many of these segments have dated badly and are pretty funny, and the whole Twist dance craze seems pretty vapid in retrospect, but nonetheless it had a big impact on all of North America. This film would make a great double bill with John Water's Hairspray, as many of the same topics are dealt with, and Twist helps give you an excellent historical perspective on popular music and dance.


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