“If you don’t do it, you’re considered ‘out’.”
After the fact, it’s hard to believe that a documentary about the twist dance craze, simply titled Twist, was considered worthy enough to be the closing night gala presentation at the 1992 Toronto International Film Festival (or Festival of Festivals, as it was then called). At the time, one can understand the thinking, for director Ron Mann had won a Genie (the Canadian equivalent of the Oscar) for his previous film (Comic Book Confidential ). Twist, however, is just a hodgepodge of archival dance footage, new interviews with the originators of the dance, and current footage of aging American Bandstand performers trying to recreate what they did 40 to 50 years ago and it ranges from the mildly interesting to truly embarrassing. It goes on for 78 minutes, but it seems longer and at the end, you’re little the wiser about the twist — just lost in a miasma of twist variations ranging from the monkey to the loco-motion to the watusi.
Actually things start off rather promisingly with some interesting material from the early part of the 1950s. Images of up-tight, aspiring, white ballroom dance learners are neatly contrasted with the flash and rhythm of black jitterbug swingers. The documentation of how black groups start to add dance steps to their song presentations, thus getting their audiences to dance, and then how this black influence started to show up on television in such segregated dance shows as “American Bandstand” is well done. Not glossed over is the extreme racist nature of the whole situation. One of the featured dance couples on “American Bandstand” relates how they introduced a dance on the show that they had learned from blacks, only to have the show effectively make them claim it was their own invention. It’s at this point that the film starts to lose its edge. The couple is now shown doing the same dance they introduced 45-odd years ago and it looks really embarrassing, particularly as they have to perform in a spotlight in front of some sort of silly logo. Subsequent interviewees whether they be singles, couples, or groups have to suffer the same indignity. As we then actually get into the introduction of the twist itself, it’s dispiriting to learn how the originator, R&B star Hank Ballard, never managed to receive the wide acclaim for the dance due him, that falling instead to Chubby Checker who popularized it. Ballard, however, seems not to resent that, perhaps recognizing that the dance might never have taken off without Checker’s efforts.
At this point the film starts to lose focus and we’re soon adrift in a sea of innumerable twist dance variations whose geneses are never made clear. The appearance of people flailing away becomes boring and when we look for some sort of perspective on the twist’s place in the dance scheme-of-things, all we get is a montage of ’60s and ’70s footage of the Beatles and discomania. Does Mann think the twist continued to be an influence for all that came after or that it really ended with the British invasion? We never know for sure.
Home Vision Entertainment’s DVD presents Twist in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, but not anamorphically enhanced. There is a lot of archival footage that lacks crispness and clarity, as one might expect. The new footage that was shot for the documentary looks okay. Colours are fairly bright and black levels are deep, but shadow detail suffers somewhat. Some speckling and minor debris are evident. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound mix does the job adequately, although dynamic range is limited. My review copy suffered from some synchronization problems during the first couple of chapters when I first played the disc. After restarting it, it seemed to be okay, but when I again started it up later, the same problem recurred. The disc’s supplements include a deleted scene, some step-by-step dance instructions for the twist and several variations, a seven-minute 2001 interview with Ron Mann, and three theatrical trailers for Mann films including Twist.