It’s tempting to say that the 1989 tap dancing revival Tap has been forgotten by time, but it might be more accurate to say it’s been consistently ignored since its release. Tap was meant to Make Tap Dancing Cool Again for a 1980s audience, but just barely broke the top ten box office grossers in its opening week before promptly disappearing forever. Even with time, as the film’s 80s Attitude™ has aged like wine, its campy pleasures as a commercial misfire are only a mild delight. Too serious in tone to be an over the top laugh riot and too silly in concept to be taken at all seriously, Tap floats in a kind of pop culture limbo that fades its already greyed-out reputation, even if a rightly forgotten one. Tap may overall be a tonal wet blanket in terms of satisfying anyone looking to its tap dancing hipness for ironic humor, but on a moment to moment basis it can be amusingly bizarre.
Gregory Hines, Sammy Davis Jr., and Savion Glover star as three generations of tap dancing legacy. Sammy Davis Jr., in his final film role, is a rusty old-timer who represents tap’s past as an experimental, badboy offshoot of jazz. Savion Glover, Hines’s real life student, is the future of tap: a young, basketball-dribbling Cool Kid with a snotty attitude that will put any of his peers in place at the suggestion that “dancing is for girls.” Hines is the ghost of tap-dancing present, a recently released ex-convict who must choose between two professional paths as a newly freed man: tap or burglary. There’s also an insane sub plot about finding ways to modernize tap by incorporating the sounds of city streets, (including construction noises, in a ludicrous Stomp-style number) or electric pickups & synths applied to the shoes so they can be amplified in a rock band. It’s all very silly, especially when it tries to make tap sexy, but never quite over the top enough to inspire fits of laughter.
Tap opens with echoing the angry, solitary dancing of the infamous warehouse scene in Footloose, then is interrupted by wailing 80s sax pop as Hines’s tap dancing badass protagonist emerges from prison to NYC streets. That’s the level of over the top cheese Tap traffics in, which can be pleasantly amusing in a self-serious, feature length drama about the art of dance. I’d be a liar if I said it were the kind of so-bad-it’s-good, unintentional comedy that deserves revival on the midnight circuit, however. It’s more of the kind of oddity you happen to watch on a middle of the afternoon TV broadcast that catches you way off guard with its lowkey absurdity. Tap failed in its mission to Make Tap Dancing Cool Again in 1989. Decades later, it also fails as ironic kitsch. There’s a kind of charm in those failures, slight as it may be, an endearing novelty that pairs well with day drinking and afternoon naps.