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Dance crazes are nothing new to Americans — light-of-foot fads extend back to the '20s with The Charleston and The Lindy Hop as a standard by-product of popular music. But the granddaddy of dances that you had to know if you were to be even remotely cool was The Twist, launched by Chubby Checker's 1960 R&B recording and lovingly remembered by filmmaker Ron Mann in his 1992 documentary Twist. However, Mann's approach to his subject is not merely a historical synopsis, but rather (typical of the director) an attempt to put The Twist in context, investigating where it came from and why it became so ridiculously popular. While the song (and dance) were first popularized by Chubby Checker, he in fact was simply the right performer to put a cheery face on that hip-swingin' fun — rhythm-and-blues artist Hank Ballard wrote and recorded "The Twist" in 1959, but his version couldn't get airplay on white radio stations. Meanwhile, white kids were learning how to twist from black kids in Philadelphia and elsewhere, but the dance was initially discouraged by Dick Clark on American Bandstand, while plenty of cultural guardians insisted it was obscene. Checker changed all of that, noting in this documentary that he can take anything dirty and make it sweet — his persona propelled The Twist onto American radio and television. Before long everybody was getting into the act, including Joey Dee with "The Peppermint Twist," the Marvellettes with "Twisting Postman" (a cash-in on "Please Mr. Postman"), and Checker himself with "Let's Twist Again." There were low-budget movies such as Hey Let's Twist, Twist All Night, and Twist Around the Clock. And in the blink of an eye, everybody was trying to find the next Twist, with such follow-ons as The Fly, The Locomotion, The Watusi, The Mashed Potato, The Hitchhike, The Jerk, and innumerable more goofy little moves. Why did it all happen? In part, Mann certainly sees popular culture in America to be — to a degree — the mainstream commercialization of counter-culture innovations, and in this instance African American culture. But The Twist also arrived at a watershed, between the controversial rock-and-roll of the late '50s and the British Invasion of 1964. Gyrating between the broken innocence of one decade and the social stridency of the next, The Twist had a suggestion of open sexuality, and it was the first dance that didn't require partners to touch. And it was so easy anybody could do it, so everybody did, until the later freestyle go-go dancing that — in typical '60s fashion — dispensed with rules and favored freedom of individual expression. Twist, while just a brief 75 minutes, is a fun documentary that doesn't take much seriously, and it's filled with remarkable archival footage from the era, as well as retrospective interviews from key players. Breezy from start to finish, two moments in particular are worth catching: Marshall McLuhan, explaining on a talk show how he thinks the The Twist fits into his Cool Media theory (it's awfully hard to know if he's joking), and a TV appearance by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles performing "The Monkey," which has an uncomfortable tinge of racism by today's politically correct standards but is nonetheless an uncompromising dose of groovy dynamite. Home Vision Entertainment's DVD release of Twist features a clean anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) from a good source print, with audio in Dolby 2.0. Features include "Let's Learn to Dance" (4 min.) with a perky instructor demonstrating the major steps; "Lulu's Concert Montage" (7 min.), offering a look at a concert film Mann shot but did not include in this documentary; an interview with Mann (7 min.); and trailers for Twist, Grass, and Comic Book Confidential. Keep-case.

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