Though I have the dancing ability of a dead water buffalo, I have always had great respect for those with actual dance ability. As such, I’ve been big fan of programs like So You Think You Can Dance? since it hit the air several years ago. Watching people with the gift of expressive movement has been a guilty pleasure. So when I saw the trailer for the film Musical Chairs, beautifully combining dance and a story about people discovering the ability to overcome adversity in their lives, I knew I wanted to see it.
Musical Chairs is the story of dance teacher Mia (Leah Pipes) and dancer Armando (E.J. Bonilla) whose lives intersect and become entwined. Armando is a busy young man, working part time at the dance studio as a custodian and part time at his parents’ restaurant, always dreaming of dancing.
Meanwhile, Mia is a beautiful dancer and instructor in a relationship with the dance studio owner Daniel (Phillip Willingham). Armando would love to spend more time dancing with Mia. He even has a great scene where they dance together briefly making quite a connection, but he knows she is unavailable and likely out of his league. Meanwhile, his relationship with his family is being tested while his mother tries to set him up with friend-of-the-family Rosa (Angelic Zambrana).
Unfortunately, when Mia is badly injured in an accident and unable to walk, her life begins to fall apart. Armando does everything he can to help her cope with her recovery despite the fact that she initially believes that Daniel will hold her position open at the studio until she recovers. Of course, Armando uses this opportunity to show how much he cares for Mia. Part of that effort is directed into teaching a group of wheelchair-bound patients how to dance, hoping to encourage Mia to find out she can dance even without her legs… And eventually everyone participates in a wheelchair ballroom dancing competition to show their dedication to the art of dancing.
Ultimately, I have to say this was a very uplifting story of recovery and rediscovery despite the many soap opera qualities of the plot. One of the things that made it work for me beyond the fact that Pipes did a very convincing acting job both as the beautiful dancer before and after the accident. Apparently, some have criticized using an actor who wasn’t disabled in this role, but I thought she gave a stellar performance throughout the film without doing any injustice to disabled people.
Another part of the story that worked was the fun array of characters who shared the journey at the rehabilitation center. Chantelle (Laverne Cox) was a fabulous cross-gendered character in the film who was one of the most “real” performances in the bunch. Kenny (Morgan Spector), a recovering soldier who lost the use of his legs, offered some off-color humor to the mix. And Nicky (Auti Angel) was a tough-girl in a wheelchair that I believed completely. The diversity of the cast and positive way these roles were shown on screen was why the film was nominated for a GLAAD Media Award in January 2013! (The GLAAD Media Awards are being held on April 20, 2013.)
Is the film an accurate portrayal of recovery for someone losing the use of their legs? Definitely not. There’s no way Mia would have recovered as quickly as she did in real life. But are we after the spirit of what her recovery represents or the harsh reality of that recovery? This wasn’t a documentary, it was a drama – and as such, artistic license was applied to make it more acceptable to the viewing public. I definitely accept that, as the film did much to encourage acceptance, not only of newly disabled people of themselves, but of able-bodied people of the differences between us all.
Musical Chairs was a wonderful film for me. Was it perfect? No. But I think it offers a glimpse into the possibility that perhaps we can embrace the differences among ourselves and be better as a result. We need more of that.
For more about the film, check out its website MusicalChairsTheFilm.com.