In “That Music Moment,” we take a monthly look at memorable or significant uses of popular music in film, and consider what that moment says about the film at large.
In 2012, Channing Tatum and Steven Soderbergh helped bring into the world Magic Mike, the story of “The Kings of Tampa,” and their frequently seedy, downtrodden lives as male entertainers. The film rode the Mathew McConaughey Renaissance wave, along with the idea of a bunch of shirtless hunks serving themselves up for sweet objectification on the big screen to garner plenty of attention. Those who actually saw the film saw the working class portrait it really was and did not see very much of that imagined sexy dancing the poster promised, except for during Tatum’s legendary “Pony” routine.
But then in 2015, the sequel to Magic Mike premiered, with the writer Reid Carolin returning along with actors Channing Tatum as the titular Mike, Joe Manganiello as “Big Dick” Richie, Kevin Nash as Tarzan, Matt Bomer as Ken, Adam Rodriguez as Tito and Gabriel Iglesias as Tobias, their hype-man.
A few actors—notably McConaughey—did not return, and their absences are quickly explained away. That swiftness of dispatching the original story threads is indicative of the kind of film Magic Mike XXL is. Besides having that name (amazing), it is something simultaneously more and less than a sequel. It throws out many plot points and characters that were relevant in the first film. Mike’s love interest, Brooke (Cody Horn) has refused his marriage proposal and left him in-between films, and her brother “The Kid” (Alex Pettyfer) has moved halfway around the world with Dallas (McConaughey) to spread their male entertainer empire. The reasons for each of those actors not returning are relatively mundane, but their absence seems to have pushed the core creative team of these movies—Carolin, Tatum, and Soderbergh—into finally abandoning the story they had tethered themselves to. They’ve given you the gritty, the real, the down and dirty and frankly sad. Now they’re going to give you what you wanted when you saw that poster: nearly two hours of hot men being hot for your pleasure. To everyone’s delight, the film is also a refreshing, nearly miraculous, two-hour vacation into a land where men aspire to make women feel special and cared for, and happy. If you want to be cynical, it’s two hours of men telling women to smile—but the crucial detail is that they don’t tell their female audiences to smile, they give them a reason to.
That hunt for “the smile” is the key to Magic Mike XXL. Mike spends the second half of the film trying to console Zoe (Amber Heard), who has recently been disappointed by a sleazy man, and to help her “get her smile back.” At the same time, the former Kings of Tampa reunite with Mike—currently retired and making his driftwood furniture—and head to Myrtle Beach for “The Convention” for one last group hurrah. About thirty minutes into the film, the men are traveling on their food truck/van and, after a dose of molly, the reluctant Kings are convinced by Mike to change up their long-seated routines for something more personally inspired. Richie isn’t sure he can pull it off, because he’s not a dancer and he’s never put himself into the routine. His former routine, designed by Dallas, had him dancing to a song he doesn’t personally like and dressed as a fireman (when he has a phobia of fire). Mike gasses him up, tells him that “you’re a Greek god and you could tie your shoe and make some girl’s day.” Eventually, the men stop at a convenience store, with a lone girl behind the counter. Mike says Richie could easily make her day; Richie is convinced “she’s never smiled in her life!” And so the bet is made: all Richie has to do is go in there, and make that girl smile. That proves that he can do his new routine, that he has the skills to rock some girl’s world all by himself without the stale routine handed to him by his boss.
And so begins one of the best scenes of the movie—possibly the best, simply because of how easily it slips out of context—and one of the best musical sequences in recent years. The more I watch Magic Mike XXL, the more I come to consider it for what it really is at heart: a musical. It may not exist in the Technicolor world of the stereotypical musical, but it has choreography that is sometimes breathtaking to watch—for various reasons, sure—it has humor in the movement, it has emotion, and a few characters even break into song. Besides the performances given by the actors—all ace—the direction by Gregory Jacobs and the cinematography by “Peter Andrews” (Steven Soderbergh, that rascal) help to craft a smooth, sexy, delightful movie that is itself like a show these men would put on for you.
Richie’s big gas station number is especially great because it is essentially the film, distilled into two minutes. We watch Richie begin insecurely, and then find his personal joy in his routine that lets him unlock his best moves and charisma as an entertainer, which helps him succeed in getting his female audience to smile, filled with that contagious glee. All the while, his bros are cheering him on.
The sequence begins as soon as Richie enters the store, and a chintzy, basic pop song playing on the store radio ends, giving way to the gentle opening notes of the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way.” The 1999 song was chosen by Manganiello from a list of options because, as he told Glamour, he imagined Richie was a secret die-hard Backstreet fan. Knowing this, we can understand how quickly Richie is able to find himself in this song—even syncing his movements up to the beats of the track. The relative innocence of the song, which conjures up images of tween girls swooning rather than an adult male entertainer routine, adds a sweet contrast to Richie’s moves. It’s a sweetness which underlines the pure motives that come with the adult routines these men craft. During their grand finale, the songs get a lot hotter than this but our memory of Richie’s routine lingers, reminding us that these routines are enjoyable beyond just their choreography or just their music, and are successful because of the dedication the performers bring to their roles in this dynamic between them and their audience.
After an attempt to attract the girl (Lindsey Moser) with a pseudo-bend-and-snap that has him literally tying his shoe as Mike suggested fails, Richie skulks down the aisle and selects a bag of Cheetos. He dramatically pulls apart the bag when the Boys sing “we are two worlds apart…” Now he has her attention. She stops texting and starts watching him move through the small store, still stone-faced but increasingly curious.
As the other guys follow him, watching through the windows, Richie moves to the fridge and seductively dances up on it before opening the door (“tell me why!”), grabs a bottle of water and jerks it from his crotch, creating a large arc of water in the store; he pours the rest all over himself in his makeshift Flashdance moment, and before we know it the shirt is gone.
Now he’s fully feeling his routine and has the girl’s attention. He performs directly to her, doing some body rolls and muscle man poses before getting on the floor and doing a classic humping routine while looking over his shoulder, giving his best “aren’t I hot?” expression.
He finishes with a flourish and a nonchalant delivery of “how much for the Cheetos and water?” A brief moment passes before an infectious smile starts to spread across the girl’s face, eventually breaking into a full laugh. The tension of the moment—does Richie have the skills to pull this off?—is broken, and Mike’s point is proven. Richie has found his confidence, and the rest of the gang has seen this technique—the personal, smile-driven routine Mike espouses—pay off, inspiring them all to change their routines for the Convention, despite its being two days away.
This sequence is about the joy in self-expression, no matter what it looks like. It’s about the enjoyment of the brazen silliness and exhibitionism of male entertainment at its idealistic best, and it’s about the sense of accomplishment entertainers can find even in the seemingly smallest reaction from their audience. These men just want to make women feel good, and to feel entertained; that is their job. A genuine smile can mean more than any material reward.
Plus, if you ask me or anyone else who has ever been behind a cash register, Richie indicating a desire to pay for the items he used in his routine is as sexy as anything he did to that fridge.