Alive and Kicking, a documentary about swing dancing, spends a lot of time trying to explain why swing dancing is so popular. This is in spite of the fact that it never actually provides any concrete evidence for the proposition that swing dance is, in fact, popular, or even that it’s more popular today than it has been in the past. That aside, the explanations vary, and tend to say more about those subjects and swing’s appeal to them than about anything meaningfully objective, a fact that Alive and Kicking didn’t take to heart. Anyway, among those explanations, which often focus on swing somehow serving as an antidote to our modern digital ennui, is one character who says something like, “It’s fun to just wave your arms in the air! Waaaaaa!” and proceeds to do just that. It does, indeed, look fun. It is also a fairly-decent summary of the approach Alive and Kicking takes towards documentary filmmaking. In that context, it’s less fun.
Documentary are hard. They are hard because, if you’re doing honest work, you lack the kind of control over your subjects and setting that fiction filmmaking has. It’s hard because you need to turn so much into so little: “shooting ratios,” the ratio between the amount of raw footage taken to the length of the finished film, exceeds 100:1 for most documentaries and sometimes much more. Documentaries hard because you need to find the way to turn gathered information into structured information without violating complex and sometimes difficult-to-articulate principles of truth, reality, and honesty. This is why good documentaries, truly good documentaries, as opposed to documentaries which are useful, important documents of real life, are quite rare.
But sometimes your documentary is about swing dancing. That’s fine! Heck, Roger Ebert insisted a documentary about pet cemeteries was one of the ten greatest films ever made, period. There’s infinite space in the world for a creative person with a unique way of seeing the world to capture a slice/nook of it, bringing it to the rest of the world in a way that defies expectations and causes us to rethink the world itself. And, you know what? There’s even close to that much space for someone to just tell a good yarn. We could all use a good yarn. Maybe even a good yarn about swing dancing. Unfortunately, Alive and Kicking isn’t even it.
The best and worst thing about Alive and Kicking is that it loves its subject. It’s the best thing primarily because that means the film really loves to show its audience swing dancing. And you know what? Swing dancing is really, really fun to watch. Some of the dancing they manage to capture is truly remarkable, and a few moves will leave you genuinely breathless. If the film makes the case for anything, it’s not for doing swing dancing, but for finding out where people nearby you will be doing swing dancing, and just going to watch them.
Unfortunately, Alive and Kicking has no distance from its subject. It cannot delineate what’s broadly appealing, and what’s appealing to those who already like swing dancing. The lack of distance also means that it has no discipline – it races and leaps from one aspect of swing dancing history, culture, and personages to another, profiling a historic venue one minute, profiling a pair of Swedish mutually-adopted sisters who dance together the next, and then mulling the paucity of black people on the modern American swing dancing circuit the next. In the end, Alive and Kicking is purely episodic, with no arc and little overall structure – but those episodes do not point towards some elusive center, painting a portrait around a theme. It’s not Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. It’s just…a bunch of footage about swing dancing. And it’s all… fun, I guess. The dancing is fun. Truly, I will give it this: Alive and Kicking is a labor of love. But sometimes love is blinding.