I admit it.
I was distracted. One glance inside my bedroom/screening room would quickly reveal that The Independent Critic receives a huge amount of DVD submissions and, quite faithfully, The Independent Critic reviews them all.
When the screener for 5...6...7...8, a feature-length documentary by Andy Milkis, was popped into the DVD player, I was a bit distracted by finishing up the review of another film.
Then, the film began.
Within moments, the vibrant energy, lively sounds and heartfelt enthusiasm of the young girls who comprise the Nova Jazz Dance Company would have my full attention and for the next 108 minutes they would possess my eyes and ears, mind and heart as Milkis delicately weaves this inspirational and entertaining documentary through the 2007-2008 Nova Jazz dance season.
41 girls. 10 performances. 104 rehearsals. 473 costumes. 2,197 miles. Indeed, one incredible year.
5...6...7...8 is the story of the 41 dancers of Nova Jazz Dance Company, an elite dance company out of The Pulse, a Bedford Hills, NY dance studio. While the film begins as a rather straightforward documentary about the evolution of Nova Jazz, it quickly transcends its structure and becomes a touching, involving and intimate journey into the lives of five key Nova Jazz members plus the woman who serves as owner, choreographer, artistic director, mentor, coach, disciplinarian and so much more to the girls, all of whom range from the age of 10-18.
Michelle and Olivia are 16-year-old co-captains of Nova Jazz, a responsibility that becomes increasingly challenging as the year moves forward and obstacles and challenges begin to mount.
Emilie is 18-years-old and the group's only high school senior, a vibrant young woman who hopes is preparing to audition for collegiate dance programs in hopes of becoming a professional dancer.
Diana, 16, has worked for three years to earn a spot with Nova Jazz. Will she continue?
Finally, there is 17-year-old Zoe, a Nova newcomer who struggles to fit in to the tightly knit group of dancers.
Holding it all together is Jenn, a married mother of two and owner of The Pulse, a dance school with over 500 members. Jenn hand-picks the girls who will be selected for Nova Jazz each year.
To call 5...6...7...8 a beautiful documentary feels inadequate, capturing only the visual aspects of a film that truly touches the heart, mind, body and soul. It is difficult, one would think nearly impossible, to authentically capture the intellectual and emotional journeys of young teenage girls as they experience coming of age, heartbreak, social struggles, struggles with self identity and so much more. American Teen, a documentary that followed a small group of Warsaw, Indiana high school teens, tried to do so but dissolved into a sea of melodrama and cinematic manipulation.
Wondrously, the same is not true for 5...6...7...8, a film that feels constantly alive and authentic and richly, naturally human as we journey with these dancers through their joys and sorrows, downfalls and triumphs. If anything, 5...6...7...8 occasionally feels a touch restrained, as if Milkis refused to reduce these girls to their dramas or their hurts for the sake of the film.
While the ages may be vastly different, 5...6...7...8 may actually be more a cousin to a film such as Young@Heart, a lively and spirited documentary from a couple years back that captured a choir comprised of senior citizens who primarily tackle contemporary music. The magic of 5...6...7...8 is that these young ladies truly are young at heart, enthusiastic and rather giddy with their love of dance and, yet, so completely real and so very teen that when something doesn't really resonate with them it becomes obvious and, in one of the year's biggest challenges, their performance suffers and the unity of Nova Jazz begins to break down.
Milkis captures it all, honestly yet respectfully for all involved.
Milkis followed Nova Jazz from registration in May 2007 all the way through the final performance in June 2008, and he filmed at all the events, rehearsals, concerts, sleepovers and virtually everything else. The resulting scenes, a nicely balanced blend of offstage interactions, rehearsals and performances, are fresh and natural and surprisingly lacking in that "staged" feeling that can so often be present in performance-oriented documentaries.
While one might expect Milkis, a highly acclaimed Visual Effects artist, to incorporate elaborate visuals or special effects, 5...6...7...8 is devoid of any unnecessary gimmicks, effects or visuals. Instead, Milkis trusts his subjects to tell their stories and his camera serves to complement the stories nicely through straightforward yet stellar camera work.
5...6...7...8 is scheduled to have its world premiere at the Garden State Film Festival in Asbury Park, NJ on March 27th with several additional festival appearances already lined up for the film. The film has also already received a Merit Award for Documentary FIlmmaking from IndieFest 2010 and was named the winner of the Aloha Accolade from the 2010 Honolulu Film Festival.
With honesty and intelligence and heart, 5...6...7...8 celebrates the young people who comprise the Nova Jazz Dance Company, young girls whose enthusiasm and commitment and varying degrees of talent will leave you entertained and inspired. So, too, you will be inspired by the commitment of Jenn Dell, their infinitely human yet equally passionate choreographer and leader. Many documentaries have tried to capture the heart and soul of an American teenager...5...6...7...8 succeeds.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic