Improving on Perfection. Have I Managed to Fix Hellzapoppin’?

Do people clapping on the One and Three drive you crazy? If so, hold on to your horses, because I might be about to ruin Hellzapoppin’ for you. Don’t worry though. I promise I’ll make things right again.

For the benefit of new dancers, if you aren’t familiar with Hellzapoppin’, it’s the most iconic of all the vintage Lindy Hop clips. Choreographed by Frankie Manning, performed by Whitey’s Lindy in the movie Hellzapoppin’ – it is an electrifying, high energy, lightning-fast routine that many of us can never tire of watching. There’s a lot been written about it – I’d recommend reading this article on Yehoodi if you want to know more. If you haven’t read Frankie’s autobiography – Ambassador for Lindy Hop, do read it – it’s a great book, and he gives a fascinating, in-depth account of how the routine came to be filmed.

Still with me? I think this all got started when I tried using Hellzapoppin’ in one of my music talks, to illustrate how dancers could use the musical phrasing to structure their dancing. I realised it didn’t quite seem to fit with the musical structure in the way I’d expected – all the solo sections were the right length, but didn’t seem to begin and end at the expected points in the music.

More recently, in my post-Big-Apple editing frenzy, I started looking again at Hellzapoppin’, debating whether to commit utter heresy try and change the phrasing, when I realised that after her epic between-the-legs slide, when Ann Johnson scoots back again towards Frankie…

She is clapping. On one, three and five. Let that sink in for a second. Ann Johnson. The Ann Johnson. Frankie’s dance partner, Ann Johnson. Clapping on the odd beats. This couldn’t possibly be right.

When I first saw that, something inside me died a little… and a new editing project was born.

The Importance of Clapping

Here’s that moment. For a bit of fun, if you want to know more about clapping on 2 & 4 vs 1 & 3, the right hand video has relevant – and highly entertaining – words of wisdom from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Dawn Hampton and Duke Ellington.

Ann Johnson, Clapping on the Odd Beats
Clapping on 2 & 4?

I should probably take a moment here to say – I did actually question whether this was actually wrong. I’ve consulted people who are a good deal more knowledgable about the history than myself, and the conclusion seems to be that one or two hand claps on 1 or 3 to accentuate rhythm wouldn’t be uncommon. Clapping along to the music on the odd beats – is unlikely. Especially when you look at the dancers standing in the background, who are all doing the same thing. I find it impossible to accept that this is the way they would have done it.

After seeing this, the floodgates burst. I realised that almost everywhere you see clapping in Hellzapoppin’, it’s on the odd beats. Even worse, every time you hear clapping in Hellzapoppin’, it’s on the odd beats. And having seen and heard it, it’s not something I can unsee or unhear – it’s there glaring at me (or shouting) every time I watch the routine. Unlike Norma Miller’s mid-routine costume changes, or her magical appearing / disappearing / reappearing sticking plaster, or Mickey Jones’ magical teleporting hair ribbon (turns out that the sequence does suffer from a few continuity issues), or even all the frustrating missing dialog from the musicians (watch their lips during the drumming section) – this one really really matters.

So What Happened?

How could this incredible piece of dancing be so wrong in these important respects? It’s fairly well known that the routine was originally choreographed and rehearsed to Basie’s Jumping at the Woodside. The music that was actually used for the routine was specially composed to fit the routine by the musical director, Charles Previn. During the final week of rehearsals and the actual filming they danced to the new music – so it really should have gone perfectly with the routine.

However – it was done in a number of different takes. Many, many takes, in fact, so while it was danced to the music we hear in the film, all the music, voices, hand-claps and so on were added later. I suspect the phrasing was messed up a bit by this process – and like some of the other classic clips (e.g A Day at the Races), the whole thing is shifted by one beat (hence the offending hand clapping.)

To make things worse, they added the hand-clap sounds on top. On the odd beats… so fixing this was going to be a touch harder than in Big Apple, where the sound was all correct – it was just out of sync.

The Plan

  1. Find the best possible quality version of the original routine.
  2. Shift all the offending hand-clap noises along by (at least) one beat.
  3. Tweak the dancing so they all start each chorus in the right places.
  4. Achieve world peace.

Piece of cake.

Harry Connick Jnr fixes the audience

Except that step 2 seems impossible – I don’t actually know of any reliable ways to remove one sound from a single piece of audio. In fact – I’m pretty sure it usually can’t be done.

Essentially, what I need to do is a bit like this video of Harry Connick Jr fixing his audiences’ clapping.

Only I need to do it around sixty five years after the track was recorded.

Oh – and step 3 is all very well, but when should each dancing chorus start? Should they start on one? Might it actually be part of the choreography for them to start early, as they do in the finished film? (or late, in the case of Frankie and Ann) What is actually correct? I know it’s wrong, because of the clapping… but just how wrong is it? In Ambassador for Lindy Hop, Frankie wrote:

Each solo had to be exactly one chorus long, thirty two bars. The Lindy Hoppers knew rhythm and beats, but they didn’t know much about choruses, so I made them repeat their speciality over and over until they became familiar with the amount of time that they had.

Which was interesting in that (as I interpret this) the dancers were more concerned about rhythm than about fitting to the larger structure of the music. It doesn’t really tell me whether they were trying to fit exactly within each chorus, or whether they might overlap somewhat in the phrasing – which, in a jazz context, that’s quite a normal thing to do.

The Hard Part

Step 1 – I bought the DVD. Therein lies a tale – I wasted a little time when I got excited by this page, which reviews a Bluray featuring a 2K digital restoration of the film. It was a while before I spotted the page header which states that this is just a pipe-dream, and doesn’t actually exist. There’s a moral there somewhere. I also realised that pretty much every version I see on YouTube has subtle (and occasionally dramatic) differences in the timing and synchronisation, so the DVD helped me figure out just how the original film had things.

Step 2 – moving the clapping back onto the correct beats…. well. Changing the audio synchronisation with the video is one thing, but I had absolutely no idea how one could isolate and remove a single sound like a hand-clap from a piece of audio. Perhaps with a huge amount of expertise, and some very costly software… but even with that I honestly didn’t know if it was possible. Once that was done, for an encore I took out the silly comedy drum sound that plays when Ann kicks Frankie – partly because after the phrasing was changed it was in the wrong place – but mainly because I find it really, really irritating. Done and done.

Step 3 – fixing the phrasing. I asked quite a few people who knew a lot more about the old-timers and the way they danced how they thought the original choreography might have gone. No-one really had a definitive answer for me, so I just experimented with what looked right. What seemed to work best was to work on the swingout timing, and follow the back-on-beat-one rule, which meant small tweaks for most couples, and a shift of several beats for Frankie and Ann. To me, this seemed to achieve the best flow in the routine, and to my eye, it fits the music much better. Once I had put all the swingouts where I felt they should be, the rest just seemed to flow and fit the music in a far more satisfying fashion.

Oh – and I put the silly comedy drum sound back again. Irritating or not, I’m so used to it being there the video doesn’t feel right without it.

In conclusion

Amazingly, Frankie never actually saw the finished film until the eighties, but said that on seeing the routine that he was extremely pleased with how well Lindy Hop was represented in the scene, and by the rhythmic precision of the dancers – so one question is: if the phrasing and clapping is so wrong, why wouldn’t he have taken exception to it? Especially as he did still have some minor criticisms about it (he would have liked some shots to feature the whole troop, and he felt that they didn’t necessarily use the takes with the best dancing)

It’s impossible to say for sure. Maybe there really is nothing wrong with it. Quite likely though, he would have been used to Lindy being treated in a far less respectful fashion in other films – note all the silly sound effects in A Day at the Races – and despite any flaws it may have, Hellzapoppin’ still stands head and shoulders above its peers. Frankie might well have felt it was amazing enough the routine was edited together as well as it was.

Anyway – here are the finished videos. I hope you enjoy them – and I’d love to know your thoughts. It was a routine of which Frankie was justly extremely proud, and I’ve done my very best to treat it respectfully. My intent was to put it in a form which is even more satisfying and exciting to watch. I truly hope that I’ve succeeded – one friend has already said that she can no longer watch the original versions – but I’ll let you be the judges.

Hellzapoppin' Fixed - The Routine
Hellzapoppin' Fixed - The Jam & Routine

Finally – for comparison’s sake. The video below is the unaltered movie version, taken straight from my copy of the DVD – so you can, if you like, see the difference between that and the “fixed” edit.

Hellzapoppin' - Original
A big thanks you must go out to all the friends who I’ve been bombarding with different versions of these edits, and for all their patience and helpful feedback. To give you an idea of what I’ve put these kind souls through, there are currently nineteen outdated versions sitting in my YouTube account – and that’s after several clean-up sessions.

11 Comments

  1. Clint said:

    As always great topic and information

    Dec 1st, 2018
    Reply
  2. Lloyd said:

    Sudddenly, with this change, the routine goes from frantic and confusing, to much more conventional-seeming Lindy hop. I suppose it is because I am so familiar with Lindy that it seems slower when on the probably-correct beat. This was definitely worth doing, and it was well done. When this routine was recreated for Frankie ’95 in New York, I cannot recall if they used this timing or the original film’s. This timing would have been a lot easier. Great stuff!

    Dec 1st, 2018
    Reply
    • Andy said:

      Good question. Having finally found and watched it on just now YouTube, it looks like (for the most part) they’ve used the same timing as I choose for the edit. It probably would have helped if I’d found it sooner (I did look, but obviously not well enough)

      Dec 1st, 2018
      Reply
  3. Glenn said:

    Blinding Andy… really good job here. Suddenly my mind wasnt trying to make sense of the dancers’ timing with the music. Everything flows better. Even watching the background dancers, not the shine dancers, all the claps hops kicks taps are in time with the music too. Obviously they would be since the dance was performed in time, though now with the soundtrack rejigged its all more rhythmical.
    Nice one!

    Dec 1st, 2018
    Reply
  4. Sarah said:

    I think the biggest tell for me is that the follows are all landing on the beat when they would more likely have jumped up on the beat–most obviously at the very beginning of the original clip. As this would be counterintuitive for a non-dancer, whoever edited the music onto the dancing probably used those jumps as anchors for the music, which moved the music forward a beat. It looks cool to match the landing with the music in this way, but it also makes the dance lose its swing. Great catch.

    Dec 2nd, 2018
    Reply
  5. jantangring said:

    This is super! Now do Big Apple!

    Dec 4th, 2018
    Reply
  6. jantangring said:

    Suddenly it pays off much more to study this recording in detail. It used to be a dance video with a loosely related soundtrack. Now I can ask questions like ”in the swingouts – where are they on three?”.

    Sure, the truth of course is that they are where Andy Lewis feels like they should be. 😀 But from what I feel, I think you got it right.

    Dec 4th, 2018
    Reply
    • Andy said:

      Suddenly it pays off much more to study this recording in detail. It used to be a dance video with a loosely related soundtrack.

      Thanks! And thanks for your lovely way of phrasing that – do you mind if I quote you at a later date?

      Sadly, the new phrasing had to be done partly by guesswork, and by what felt right – I read everything I could on the routine, but there’s nothing to say for sure that I’m right or wrong. I did experiment a lot – if William and Mickey started on 8, how on the music was the rest of their section? And I had to do that afresh for every single cut.

      On the plus side – since I did the edit I’ve found and watched two modern recreations of the routine, and both of them seem to have made most of the same choices that I did.

      Dec 6th, 2018
      Reply

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