Musical Chairs


Three decades after rummaging through the ruins of the downtown punk scene (Smithereens) and immortalizing Madonna, East Village fashion, and Battery Park’s coin-op binoculars (Desperately Seeking Susan), Susan Seidelman still knows how to capture the chaotic magic of New York. At the outset of Musical Chairs, her camera moves in on the shops and street corners of Washington Heights like a local just stopping by, making it seem both intimately known and inherently unknowable. Alas, setting quickly recedes to scenery as screenwriter Marty Madden’s hoary storytelling rises to the fore. Uninterested in his Puerto Rican family’s restaurant and in the local chica his meddlesome mother keeps pushing upon him, dreamy dreamer Armando (E.J. Bonilla) just wants to dance, and with high-class blonde Mia (Leah Pipes) in particular. After a freak accident cripples poor Mia, Armando remains undeterred, fending off his family, rallying a community of rehabilitating misfits, and persuading his crestfallen beloved to compete in a wheelchair ballroom-dance contest. Despite—or perhaps because of—the novelty of its milieu, Musical Chairs plays things as safely and familiarly as possible, from its broadly drawn supporting cast (meet the punk, the crass marine, and the tart transvestite on wheels) to the false impediments delaying a weepy catharsis. Yet all would be forgiven if Seidelman weren’t so damningly dispassionate about dance, cutting up and away from movement and devaluing the thing we’d countenance so much cheese in order to see.