Curating Mood: Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike (2012) & Magic Mike XXL (2015)

I don’t know where general consensus lies with the Magic Mike films, but I believe they’re both excellent—Magic Mike XXL is honestly a masterpiece.

Tatum in Magic Mike XXL (2015)

They are both breezily constructed films about complicated characters which examine feminine desire in fascinating, never condescending ways. They sport banging soundtracks too, along with a great Channing Tatum.

I’m just going to focus on the thread between the two films, Tatum’s Mike and his theme song, Ginuwine’s classic R&B hit “Pony.” Even though “Pony” only makes brief appearances in each film, the song feels like an integral part of the universe this story takes place in.

2012 was an interesting year for Ginuwine’s debut single. Alongside it’s feature in Magic Mike, the song and its artist popped up in an episode of Parks and Recreation that aired a few months before Magic Mike’s release.

I don’t know which of the two productions would have filmed first, and if either would have been aware of the others Ginuwine presence, so it’s probably some cosmic coincidence. The coincidence repeated itself, too, as Ginuwine guest starred on Parks and Recreation (he was Donna’s cousin) in its final season just a few months before Magic Mike XXL was released.

Before ingraining itself into two major properties, “Pony” was its own cultural touchstone. Released in 1996 with his first album, Ginuwine…The Bachelor, “Pony” was a pretty immediate success that never seemed to fade out of the cultural conscious.

Even if you don’t know the name or the lyrics, you know the throbbing bassline that starts the track out — and the chorus is infectious in its simplicity. The song also coyly combines two prominent sexual figures in American culture, the black R&B singer and the cowboy.

This is the cultural clout Magic Mike utilizes to demonstrate the ability of Tatum’s dancer. In the first Magic Mike, Tatum’s introductory scene as Magic Mike doesn’t appear until about 30 minutes into the film, when Cody Horn’s Brooke visits the club he works at.

The scene is from Horn’s point of view, an interesting shift in the testosterone heavy nature of Soderburgh’s film. This is the only point in the movie where Soderburgh films the performances on stage from the audience’s perspective.

His camera is usually on the stage looking out, or at a vantage right next to the stage.

Magic Mike’s dance stands out from the other performances in the film for it’s stripped down nature. Mike, as we understand him, is the true talent of the group, he doesn’t rely on the gimmicky tricks of Matthew McConaughey’s Dallas to perform for his crowd.

This is contrasted by the other members of Dallas’ crew, like Matt Bomer’s Ken—who literally performs as a Ken doll — and Alex Pettyfer’s Adam — who garners the favor of Dallas by combining the skills he learns from Mike with the gimmicks developed by Dallas.

This contrast is also the entire tension of Magic Mike, which reveals itself to be a story of burnout and self-neglect over it’s runtime.

Adam gets wrapped up in the glamour of Mike’s life, the external factors which come to represent what it means to be a male stripper: drugs, women, sex appeal, money, carelessness and that little bit of danger which comes from doing something you shouldn’t be.

It’s these trappings that eat Adam up, and that are on the verge of eating up Mike.

But Mike separates himself from this life because he is more than it. He has aspirations and engagements outside of entertainment, such as his furniture business and his relationship with both Brooke and Olivia Munn’s psychologist, Joanna.

He is genuine, that’s what makes him successful both on and offstage.

Scene from Magic Mike XXL

Magic Mike turns its focus on the men performing for women, and the effects that act of performance and the larger practice of performative masculinity can have on men.

It does so well, and it never shames the women these men perform for, but the introspective angle does end up under serving the female characters who appear in the film. Magic Mike XXL fixes this problem by turning its gaze directly to the performance itself.

When “Pony” reintroduces us to Mike, it arrives right at the beginning of the film, in a completely private moment for Mike. All alone and surrounded by his tools, Mike still can’t resist the joy that comes from performing. This scene, like the rest of the film, is shot for a female audience.

Unlike the first Magic Mike, performance here doesn’t reduce the performer to gimmicks or signifiers. Performance is expression in XXL. Mike can be a show pony, sure, but that doesn’t mean he can’t enjoy being in the show.

The art of performative expression is what each of the characters in Magic Mike XXL explore. This focus on the ways we express ourselves makes XXL a wonderfully sex positive movie. Because what each performer realizes throughout their trip is that their performance isn’t for them, its for their audience. Take this scene with Joe Manganiello’s Big Dick Richie:

Richie’s goal, and the goal of all the performers, isn’t to be sexy so he can feel validated or so he can make money — those are just perks of the job — he wants to make his audience smile. That’s the goal of each act of performance in Magic Mike XXL, to have fun with someone else. It’s the larger message XXL has about sex, too, it’s about being with someone and having a good time, it’s never only about you.

I’d argue that this is what “Pony” demonstrates, too, and that probably has played a part in the song’s longevity. The song is obliquely sexual, but it’s more about the ways Ginuwine (… the Bachelor) can please his partner, not about the ways a partner can be pleasing to him.

Another great thing Magic Mike XXL does in its investigation of performance is literally take Mike back to his roots at Rome’s (Jada Pinkett Smith) strip club in Savannah, Georgia — a black-owned club populated by dancers of color.

I mentioned earlier how Ginuwine combines the iconography of the African American man and the cowboy in “Pony;” Tatum’s Mike embodies that image (explicitly so in his dance in the first film). He’s a strapping white man from the south, wearing a hoodie and sweats, who can move in ways associated with African American traditions of dance, and who is presented for our pleasure.

Donald Glover in Magic Mike XXL

In Magic Mike, this is presented without much comment and is implied to be more naturally, effortlessly sexy than the gimmicky modes of performance the other dancers rely on. Magic Mike doesn’t dig deeper into the odd racial politics of that presentation and the ways it benefits from the inherently sexualized nature of black men under the white gaze in creating its white male object of desire.

XXL tries to address this by giving Mike an origin in this Georgia strip club. It works, for the most part, but still creates this odd magical black oasis that serves as a place of enlightenment for Mike’s group. To XXL’s credit, the characters of color don’t just appear and disappear but actually play active roles in the story and carry their own personal goals and experiences.

It’s under this light that “Pony” then becomes something more than just a bit of iconography Mike utilizes in creating his stage persona, it’s a legitimate part of Mike’s past that he moves beyond over the course of the film. He explicitly chooses not to perform to “Pony” in pursuit of finding a way to express himself that is different and exciting in ways that are new for him.

“Pony”, isn’t just set dressing for Mike. It’s a song he would actually listen to on his own time, and it brings him joy. And that’s kind of the trick of “Pony” itself. It’s not the production or the iconography Ginuwine draws from that makes “Pony” such a great song. It’s the joy you feel from Ginuwine in performing the song and sharing it with you.

You can listen to the soundtrack below. Check back every Friday for a new installment of Curating Mood.

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