October 6, 2000

The working-class tappers of Bootmen splash their way into the big time in a gritty Australian industrial town.

Photo by Philip le Masurier courtesy Fox Searchlight

Film: Bootmen

Reviewed by Jane Goldberg

Bootmen, an Australian movie about working-class tap dancers, is scheduled to open in the United States on October 6 (though such dates are always subject to change; check your local paper). It’s reviewed exclusively for by Jane Goldberg, tapper, documentarian and founder of Changing Times Tap.

Bootmen, the in-your-face Australian movie about tap life, has something for everyone: romance, violence, death, car chases, gay pride, parental disapproval, unwanted pregnancy and, best of all, lots of tap dancing.

Director-choreographer Dein Perry (of Tap Dogs fame) and his collaborators, screenplay writer Steve Worland and co-producer Hilary Linstead, were obviously inspired by Fred and Ginger, The Full Monty, West Side Story, Tap and Saturday Night Fever. Stealing is a high art in tap but instead of copying steps, these authors borrowed plots. I did detect one appropriated dance idea: a Tommy Tune/Twiggy water-splashing tap theme from the Broadway musical, My One and Only. But that was a duet, where in Bootmen it’s an entire pool full of tappers.

Sean Okden (Adam Garcia) is Bootmen’s star hoofer. He’s rejected by a Sydney tap show for improvising, so he gathers tappers from a dance studio in Newcastle, his (and Perry’s) industrial hometown, to help him stage his own show. So what if the plot isn’t that original? Perry and company manage to crank out a dance thriller that keeps you literally on your toes. We know it has to end with some great tap number, but the nice thing about Bootmen is how Perry has made tap feel like it’s no longer enmeshed in its history. It’s modern, in the sense that Sean feels accessible, likable, even sexy.

My only problem with him was when he dissed the beautiful Linda (Sophie Lee) for her one-night stand with his brother. The boys get to play, but not the girls. Things go badly for both Linda and the brother, in some high-corn plot twists that nonetheless serve to move events along.

Somehow, even though there weren’t any girls really hoofing in Bootmen, I was rooting for the all-male cast anyway. Traditionally tap has been considered a man’s dance, with women in the chorus lines at best. But in Bootmen, like The Full Monty, you sense that tapping men are definitely underdogs and a very disenfranchised lot in Australia. Although I missed Perry’s Tap Dogs live, it’s obvious from Bootmen that the appeal is watching working-class guys create a kind of macho tap by building sound and rhythm from cleats and sheet metal.

It’s heartening to see that Perry has brought to the forefront the subject of class in tap. Usually class is a subtext for race relations in American eyes and ears and all kinds of interpretations are placed on it. Since race isn’t even dealt with in Bootmen, we see more clearly how tap dancing is perceived as an art form done by the lower classes. (Was there ever an Australian Fred Astaire in top hat and tails and lavish, escapist Art Deco settings? I’ll leave that to the Australian tap historians.)

My one complaint is that we never see these guys practicing. Not that you want to dwell on shuffles, but Bootmen fulfills tap’s stereotype that it looks easy, that tappers just get out there and go. The major dance cliché in the movie and in tap life itself is sung by the old mentor figure: Keep it simple and don’t improvise. True, improvisation is the highest form of tap, but just how do you get to that improvisational state? From my own experience, tap dancers often are asked to learn the basics and improvise quickly thereafter. Some can just improvise, some can just learn routines. Improvisation is often based on a lot of knowledge of a lot of steps.

Even the rock ‘n’ roll music is an add-on, with young musicians just showing up for free to help out rather than establishing any intrinsic relationship between the dance and the music. It’s to Perry’s credit, however, that he explores the real issues of volume and how hoofers have to adjust to loud music if they want to stay alive artistically in today’s world. There’s an integrity to Perry’s idea of tap, even if there’s a kind of chauvinism in the plot.

Like Gregory Hines’s character in Tap, Sean Okden really wants nothing to do with show tap or Broadway tap – he wants to improvise and do his own thing, but he doesn’t know what to do yet – and he’s motivated by the sounds of the city. In Australian working-class terms, that means the sounds of the steel mill. In true tap tradition he finds his own way.

I admit it: I cried at all the tear-jerking scenes. Can you love what a movie stands for without totally loving every scene in the movie? I did. I loved Strictly Ballroom too, another dance movie from Australia with more originality, more subtlety (remember the daydreaming father?) and better dancing. Bootmen is aimed at a youth market, for sure. But as one of tap’s cheerleaders from way back, I was thrilled to see another movie (Tap being the first, I think) whose plot not only is moved along by tap dancing, but it’s about tap.