The right people made Tap, the new movie musical. A project like this, in the wrong hands, might have been a blown opportunity to capture the essence of one of America’s cultural treasures.
But they got it right.
Tap features the only contemporary star who could handle a role such as this, the terrific dancer (and lately actor) Gregory Hines, who teams with some of the legends of tap dancing. And the man who wrote and directed the movie is Nick Castle, the son of a Hollywood choreographer (also named Nick Castle) who worked with the greats back in the glory days.
The plot of the movie isn’t anything much. It plays a bit like one of those John Garfield movies from the 1940s in which the hero agonizes over whether to choose the violin or his life of crime. Hines plays a petty criminal who gets out of a spell in Sing Sing and begins slipping back into bad habits. He used to be a talented tap dancer, but he’s left all that behind. Or has he?
Don’t you believe it. With the help of an ex-girlfriend (Suzzanne Douglas) and the formidable old-timers down at the dance studio, Hines feels the old steps coming back. He’s being hassled by a former partner in crime (Joe Morton), who wants Hines’ legwork to be of the second-story variety.
But don’t pay much mind to the plot. The film is alive with splendid dance numbers (the choreography is by another Hollywood legend, Henry LeTang), that range from a spontaneous group session on a crowded, noisy city street to Hines’ solo improvisations. Hines is such a marvelous dancer that he blows away the story’s more formulaic aspects. When this guy dances, everything snaps into focus.
The sweetest element of the film is the collection of old-timers from the pantheon of tap dance. They included Sandman Sims, Bunny Briggs, Harold Nicholas (of the incredible Nicholas Brothers, who used to tumble into Hollywood musicals and steal the show with their specialty dances), and the grand old man himself, Sammy Davis, Jr. Davis, clearly having the time of his life, plays Hines’ mentor, a wizened dandy with a cane and a colorful scarf around his noggin.
The film’s high point comes early, when the old pros issue a tap challenge to Hines in a dusty studio. The guys take turns out-tapping each other, and it’s as though a time capsule had been opened. These veterans perform with the silky assurance of people who know they are masters. And maybe with melancholy, too; had then been white, some of these fellows might have been major stars in their heyday.
It’s difficult to imagine anyone not enjoying Tap on some level. Like the classic musicals it aspires to, it has silly, simple passages, redeemed by bursts of exuberance. But before audiences can go to a movie, they have to go to the theaters. Is anyone intrigued by tap dance anymore? It’ll be interesting to find out.
First published in The Herald, February 9, 1989
Savion Glover, still a teen but already a Broadway star, is also in the film. Does anybody remember this movie? I can understand its fringe appeal, but it’s got glorious people in it. I interviewed Nick Castle for The Boy Who Could Fly, and thought his director career would maybe be bigger than it was (you will recall that he played “The Shape” in the original Halloween for his buddy John Carpenter). Suzzanne Douglas did a great deal of stage work as well as a co-starring role in Robert Townsend’s TV show Parent ‘Hood; she died in 2021.