It’s rare for the musical guests on Saturday Night Live to involve much in the way of special effects: the show is live, the timetable is tight, and the budget for lavish musical numbers is earmarked for John Mulaney singing about bodega bathrooms. But for this year’s season premiere, Billie Eilish went all out, performing “Bad Guy” while recreating one of Fred Astaire’s most famous effects. Here she is dancing on the ceiling:
First of all, the obvious: As surprising as it was to see this staged at all on live television, the execution pales in comparison to the version director Stanley Donen filmed for Royal Wedding. But it’s also not a fair comparison, since Donen was shooting on film with as many takes as he wanted. And while it’s not really fair to compare anyone’s dancing to Fred Astaire’s, it’s especially unfair to Eilish, who is 17 years old: Astaire had been dancing professionally for 45 years when he filmed Royal Wedding. But focus on the way the effect is executed and there are still interesting differences that shed light on how and why Astaire’s version works. Here’s the original routine. The image quality is an unfortunate reminder that films don’t magically get restored when they enter the public domain, so get the Warner Archive DVD for home viewing:
The first thing to notice is that widescreen televisions are not well-suited to dancing on the ceiling. Astaire has a lot more vertical space to play with than Eilish, and he uses it well—watching Astaire repeatedly fall upward after leaping from the ceiling (around 2:42) is one of the most magically disorienting things in the entire routine. Eilish is swimming upstream in two ways here: the shape of the camera image dictates the rectangular shape of her set, and the tiny stage where she is performing means her set has very little depth to play with or headroom for acrobatics. The size of Astaire’s set, too, changes the feel of the sequence: the camera tracks him around the room, while Eilish’s camera can’t move without revealing the trick, which makes it more obvious that there is a trick. The second unavoidable disadvantage is just a function of budget: Astaire’s set has an ingenious collection of props, from armchairs to a coatrack, that sell the verisimilitude of his room. Pacing helps too: Donen gives Astaire a little time to inhabit the room and interact with the props and furniture before it starts spinning, which does a lot to sell the effect. SNL doesn’t have time for that, so with the exception of two light fixtures, Eilish’s crew has to give the audience a clear sense of what’s supposed to be up and down solely through set painting, but the narrow depth and low ceiling mean she looms over the “doors” and “windows.” There’s never a moment when you believe she’s doing anything but standing in a box, so when the set starts rotating, the moment of realization is more along the lines of “So that’s why she’s in that box,” rather than “My God, Billie Eilish can dance on the walls!” But there’s a reason so many people have used this effect over the years: Eilish’s gravity-defying lean backward before her first step onto the wall still works, despite all the technical disadvantages her version faced. Donen seemed to realize where the drama of the effect lay: when he recreated it for Lionel Richie’s “Dancing on the Ceiling” video, he gave a lot of screentime to those corner transitions. And with the usual caveats for Astaire’s incomparable dancing, Richie’s first steps onto the wall and ceiling still play, too:
Of course, Richie, like Astaire, gets all the benefit of multiple takes, and unlike Astaire, he also gets the benefit of MTV-style editing, using the most graceful two or three seconds of every take to achieve the same sense of ease Astaire had to earn by executing an entire routine perfectly. (The whole “All the World to Me” sequence consists of only five shots!) Eilish, too, had to execute perfectly: she got to do her version exactly once, with less money, on a tiny stage, while singing. In short, this was a staggeringly ambitious thing for Eilish to have attempted on live television, and even if the seams show, she mostly pulled it off. More people should aim that high.