Early on in Susan Seidelman’s sweet, affable Musical Chairs, the salsa-loving Armando (E.J. Bonilla) struts down a Bronx sidewalk to the rhythms of Lucha por la patria by Coati Mundi. The scene is a subtle call-out to an older, now-famous film about another young man who lived in a New York City suburb and used music and dance to escape the drab reality of his working-class life.
But Saturday Night Fever was also a cultural snapshot of the disco 1970s and the morals of the era: Musical Chairs is a much more modest affair, although its pleasures are similar. Armando works as a busboy at his parents’ Puerto Rican restaurant, where his mother implores him to find a wife and settle down lest he end up “an old dreamer, all alone.” But Armando also puts in hours at a dance studio in Manhattan, where he teaches rich old women how to tango and secretly woos the beautiful Mia (Leah Pipes), a tall, blonde instructor who hails from Upper East Side money and is completely out of his league.
After a tragic accident, the dynamic of their relationship changes – but Armando’s love for Mia remains intact. Musical Chairs was written by Marty Madden, who knows how to use underdog clichés in a way that makes them feel fresh, and it was directed by Seidelman with her usual emphasis on detail and environment and the little things many filmmakers take for granted: A furtive glance loaded with meaning, the life-changing impact of a well-timed kiss, the irresistible allure and seductiveness of two people dancing in unison, hearing the same music in their heads and responding as one.
Seidelman captures the feel and spirit of the Bronx with the same insider’s perspective she used to immortalize 1980s East Village culture in Desperately Seeking Susan. More importantly, she immerses us into a foreign world – wheelchair ballroom dancing – with a sharp curiosity and humane respect for a large cast of characters who could have been become caricatures. As the two leads, the largely unknown Bonilla and Pipes strike up the kind of easy, natural chemistry that makes you forget you’re watching pure formula. Once you care about Armando and Mia as people, the rest of the film falls into place. Musical Chairs is about overcoming impossible odds and never giving up and chasing your dreams – all that afterschool-special stuff — but it’s also charming and upbeat, and it’s stuffed with great, vibrant, insanely catchy music. No Bee Gees, though.
Cast: Leah Pipes, E.J. Bonilla, Priscilla Lopez, Jaime Tirelli, Laverne Cox, Nelson Landrieu, Angelic Zambrana.
Director: Susan Seidelman.
Screenwriter: Marty Madden.
Producers: Janet Carrus, Joey Dedio.
A Paladin Films release. Running time: 100 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, adult themes. Opens Friday March 23 in Miami-Dade: South Beach; in Broward: Gateway; in Palm Beach: Shadowood, Delray, Boynton.