Every so often a special documentary comes along that inspires us and warms out hearts leaving us with a feeling that our spirits have been lifted for having seen it. Broadway producer Amanda Lipitz is no stranger to giving that feeling to audiences. She is responsible for Legally Blonde the musical and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Her latest project, Step, took her back to her hometown roots in Baltimore to film the young ladies of the step team at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women.
Watching them perform she saw a story to be told, but it was the arrest and subsequent death of teen Freddy Gray that would inspire Lipitz to take her footage and start over from another angle — to create a musical documentary about the girls on the step team, telling their story, taking us inside their homes to show how these girls found unity and security through their music while dealing with sometimes troubling issues at home and school. Music is their escape and their refuge, and Lipitz captures the deep-reaching personal implications as they express their hopes and dreams through their step talent.
I caught up with Lipitz while she was in LA to talk about her film and how Cori, Blessin’ and Tayla and the Step team changed her life.
What was the story behind your journey to Step?
On the side of my Broadway career, I was making shorts about girls education in the Baltimore Leadership Program. They had a 100% graduation rate and I was completely blown away and inspired by them and what it means to be the first in your family to go to college and how it manifests itself into a story and that journey of a story.
Every time someone saw my shorts, they would say I should make a documentary but I was a producer at that time. These stories were just so inspiring. My mom has been an activist for women and girls my whole life. One of my first memories is of my mom running a domestic violence hotline from our dining room table.
My mom recruited me to make films for her, and because I do what my mother says, I was making films to promote the school when most of the girls were 11 years old. I was making films, but when I met Blessin, she came up to me and said, “You’re a Broadway producer and I’m going to be on Broadway.”
Blessin told me that the next time I came to school I should film their step team. I walked in and the team were stepping. For me, it was what happened during a great musical. The music and movements were telling us who they were and who they were going to be with every step and every breath.
In the 9th grade, I just filmed them stepping and learned how to capture that through different movements. It was a lot of trial and error. I’d show the families my short stories to give them an idea about my sensibilities and the kind of storyteller I was. I wanted to change the conversation about Baltimore.
In the 11th grade it was a rough year as Blessin missed 53 days of school and I watched the girls pull her back in. As a musical person, you couldn’t make it up.
When I saw the woman go into the riots and pull out her son, I knew that’s what Geneva would have done and I knew that I had to throw out my 200 plus hours of footage, because that was the moment that said this is why I needed to tell the story, this is the incident. It was such a tragedy and I watched my hometown burn and it created something in me and in all the girls to tell the story and tell it now.
I was going to say, Blessin’s story is so powerful. How did you get her to let you into her home and expose her full self that way.?
I would say if the mothers had not trusted me and felt that I loved and cared deeply for their daughters none of this would have happened.
My grandmother used to say, “One heart fills another.” People know if you’re there to exploit them or if you see an opportunity, but they knew me and I revealed a lot of things about myself to them. They came into my life and it was a give and take.
They had a higher purpose making this film, we made it to inspire other young people to change the conversation about all of our hometowns. Anytime it was hard or uncomfortable, we reminded ourselves of that.
I always wanted them to remember it and to go back to their hometowns with their heads held high.
The genuine passion as a filmmaker comes across in the story.
I give credit to Penelope Falk my editor who edited it. She did an incredible job of mining those moments. She came on while I was still filming and I’d talk to her about what she watched and I would talk to her about what I had filmed while driving on the New Jersey Turnpike and those conversations were invaluable. We had the same beliefs and same values of wanting to tell a truthful story. We wanted the girls to be proud of it and we wanted Michelle Obama to be proud of it so we had a photo of her up in the editing suite.
How did you choose which of the three girls to feature?
I wish I could have told everyone’s story because they’re all incredible. I worked really hard with Penny so that by the end of the film you felt there was a team. Blessin at 11 years old, I looked at her face through the camera and I knew her face was made for this.
She’s a born performer.
We connected on that level because she’s a creative spirit. She created the Step team and invited me to film them and it was fascinating to me because she was this natural talent with a huge presence on the team and excelled in being a leader and choreographer, but she struggled academically and I knew something was not right at home. When you meet her in the film is when I meet her and I had known her since she was in the 6th grade.
I was fascinated by her, she was always going to be a big part of the movie and I wanted to take any opportunity to turn a stereotype on its head.
So, the poor teenage mother in Baltimore who has a baby when she’s just 15, that baby grows up to be a valedictorian. She’s a wonderful mother, the father is involved in her life, and it’s not the story you’ve always heard.
The girls that gravitated to me are the girls I gravitated to. Tayla didn’t join until the 9th grade and her mother was standing on the side in a bulletproof vest. The mothers are important to me. There is a deep mother/daughter story in a lot of these stories.
Take Blessin’s mom. You think you know her. I did to the audience what I did myself. At first I judged her. I thought this mother doesn’t show up for her child. As a mother, I never should have done it, but what I realized is that Blessin’s mom is a survivor, she survived the mental health system in this country. She loves her daughter so much. She’s very frank about her struggles and we have no right to judge her. She’s brave and strong. I was nervous for her to see the film but she said I got it all right.
The music is such a core part of the film. How did your musical background help the film?
There are musical tropes throughout the film. I open with an opening number and they tell you who they are.
Sisterhood and integrity/ mess with my sister/ you mess with me
You’re not sure what it means at the beginning but when they’re building the pyramid and you hear that chant, it means something completely different. You remember it because you’ve heard it before.
If this were a musical it would be a whole number. I wanted to take a song that I could flip on its head. That song is “Give It to Me, I’m Worth It,” is about a girl trying to get a guy at a club and most pop songs, I think are misogynistic. I wanted to make it about getting into college.
The pyramid montage was about me going to Raphael Saadiq. I wanted to hear a symphony about these girls coming together. I had a different song there when I cut it as the song got so popular. Raphael Saadiq and Laura Karpman and I talked for a long about the song I had and what I was trying to say, the themes and they went off to write Jump. If you listen to the words, it lands on Blessin’s mother and you hear: “You must fight just like her.”
It cuts to Coach G and you hear: “Every single thing.” When Blessin’s mom makes the bed in the dorm and you hear the piano. Her mom is there for her, it’s so simple and it’s timed. I didn’t have to change anything.
I absolutely love the message of the film
It’s really interesting that at the beginning Blessin’s mom says she went to college and always had a problem with math. She says she dropped out right before the test. Then you see Blessin in the same predicament. I thought there were so many different layers to it. I think it’s important that students see themselves and they recognize those patterns and they break it.
What was it like when everyone saw the film?
We brought 27 people to Sundance and we met with everyone and decided to wait until the night before the night before the actual screening and they loved it. Blessin had a moment, it’s so much. They also saw it with an audience and everyone cheered. They love the film and that means everything to me. Anyone who knows me knows that’s the truth. Everything that has happened from the critics, Fox Searchlight, and everything else. None of it would be worth it if they didn’t like it.
Step is available on DVD