'High Strung': Santa Barbara Review

Cos Aelenei
Poor man's 'Fame' squeaks by because of the music and dance.
4/8/2016

New performers and a few veterans join forces in this upbeat dance musical set at a Juilliard-type school in New York.

Attractive performers, rousing music, energetic dancing ... do you need anything else to make a good movie? An incisive, original script would be helpful, but that is one thing missing from High Strung, which had its world premiere at this year’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival. When the film opens in theaters in April, it hopes to catch the same audience that made the Step Up movies modest hits. It could definitely tap that audience, even with its failings.

Ruby (Keenan Kampa) is an aspiring dancer who arrives in New York from the Midwest. She encounters Johnnie (Nicholas Galitzine), a gifted violinist playing for handouts in the subway station. Ruby has come to take classes at an institution called the Manhattan Conservatory of the Arts (sort of a fictional Juilliard), whereas Johnnie doesn’t have the same ambition. It isn’t hard to guess that these two will be drawn together, and they join forces with a bunch of hip-hop dancers to enter an annual arts competition.

High Strung seems to be aiming a little higher than Step Up. It would like to be a 21st century Fame or Flashdance, but it doesn’t have as intriguing an assortment of characters. Aside from our two leads, none of the other characters in the script by Janeed and Michael Damian stand out from the background. Jane Seymour, also one of the film’s executive producers, plays one of Ruby’s strict instructors, and although it’s nice to see Seymour on screen, her part and the other adult roles are underwritten.

Despite these flaws, the movie is often entertaining. The two leads are immensely appealing. Kampa was actually a dancer with the Mariinsky Theater (formerly the Kirov Ballet) in Russia, so she does her own dancing, unlike Jennifer Beals in Flashdance. British actor Nicholas Galitzine reportedly worked to master the violin, but his solos were actually performed by composer Nathan Lanier. The hip-hop dancers who join up with the twosome do some electrifying work. 

Director Michael Damian does not bring any special spark to the film, but he recognizes the talents of his cast and allows them to shine. It isn’t hard to predict how the story will end, but there are worse ways to while away a couple of hours than to spend time with these gifted players.

Venue: Santa Barbara International Film Festival
Production companies: Riviera Films, Sforzando Productions, Castel Film Studio
Cast: Keenan Kampa, Nicholas Galitzine, Sonoya Mizuno, Jane Seymour, Paul Freeman, Richard Southgate, Maia Morgenstern
Director: Michael Damian
Screenwriter-producers: Janeen Damian, Michael Damian
Executive producers: JoJami Tyler, Eric Tyler, Jane Seymour, Dave Scott, Cheri Golub, Keith Golub
Director of photography: Viorel Sergovici
Production designer: Mihai Dorobantu
Editors: Michael Damian, Janeen Damian, Peter Cabadahagen, Byron Speight
Music: Nathan Lanier
Choreographer: Dave Scott

Rated PG, 97 minutes

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