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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Twist': A History of Social Change to Shout About

August 13, 1993|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

The Itch. The Bop. The Stroll. The Strand. The Cha-lypso. The Madison. Each a bona fide dance craze with teen-age clout. Where would they all lead to? What could possibly come next?

Next, as anyone of a certain age remembers, was that now-venerable institution called the Twist. But as this "Twist," Ron Mann's engaging, high-spirited documentary points out, was no ordinary changing of the guard. This was nothing less than a social revolution, a notoriously silly one perhaps, but a revolution nevertheless.

"Twist" (at the Sunset 5, Times-rated Family) functions not only as a history of that particular song and dance, but of more than a decade of American popular music. Made with newsreel and television footage from dozens of archives as well as in-person interviews with key personnel, it is a lively cultural artifact, alternately horrifying and amusing.

Perhaps most horrifying of all is a glimpse of how dauntingly rigid popular dance could be for the silent majority in the early 1950s. While jazz dance crazes like the Lindy hop and the jitterbug still look wildly exciting, the tedious two-steps most of the country was doing resemble relics of some well-mannered gulag.

But as rhythm and blues turned into the more widespread rock 'n' roll, moralists grew increasingly horrified, referring to the music as a "communicable disease" and worse. Most suspect of all were songs with racy lyrics, hot items like Hank Ballard and the Midnighters' notorious "Work With Me Annie."

Faced with hordes of young people who just wanted to dance to the beat, the gatekeepers of television came up with well-mannered programs like "American Bandstand." Chewing gum and combing hair were forbidden, as were suggestive movements, and the best of rock was effectively neutered in favor of the likes of Frankie Avalon, shown in a particularly gooey clip singing about bobby sox and pearls.

So it was no surprise that after Ballard wrote and recorded "The Twist" (which even his own record company was unconvinced about), a more acceptable artist would be recruited to cover it. That would be Chubby Checker. "Nothing is nasty when I do it," explains the likable Mr. C. "I have that talent. I do."

No one, though, was ready for how big the Twist became. Not Ballard, who is more bemused than bitter at the way the hottest dance craze ever left its originator behind. Not Checker, who saw what he thought was a one-shot novelty roar back to No. 1 when the Peppermint Lounge's Joey Dee made the dance a must-do for New York's cafe society, with all kinds of merchandising and even doubtful movies like "Hey, Let's Twist" arriving in its wake.

Ridiculous as all this may seem today, producer-director Mann (whose last film was "Comic Book Confidential") understands that the Twist was right there at the right time. The first dance to make it acceptable for hips to move on national television, it ushered in the hang-loose '60s and marked the start of the freestyle mode of non-touch dancing that is still with us. "It was something totally different," remarks a Twist veteran. "People were ready for it."

Indeed they were.

'Twist'

A Triton Pictures release, in association with Alliance Communications. Director Ron Mann. Producer Ron Mann. Executive producer Ron Haig. Cinematographer Bob Fresco. Editor Robert Kennedy. Running time: 1 hour, 18 minutes.

Times-rated Family.

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