*** Originally published on Beyond the Marquee, 07/06/12 ***
You know Doc, it’s easy to shred a bad movie… especially online. Plenty of cyber critics tear into pictures they deem lousy with the ferocity of a lynch mob and it’s really unfair. Movies are difficult to make and they (typically) require the passions of a collective group willing to dedicate weeks, months and even years of their lives. The Departed is currently the king of the hill on my favorite movies list and I’m sure I’m not alone in my choice. My least favorite is Black Knight, a film I find so awful, I deliberately watch bad movies in search of something worse. But as much as I despise it, I can guarantee Black Knight is somebody’s favorite flick. So while I’ll vocalize my disdain for such drivel, I won’t go overboard in pissing all over someone’s favorite movie. Now, take Freak Dance, the “new” feature film from Upright Citizens Brigade. It’s coming to DVD on 7/10 from Image Entertainment and while it doesn’t quite dethrone the Knight, it’s not worth a minute of your time.
Personally, I love Upright Citizens Brigade. I loved their eponymous Comedy Central show in the late 90′s and if you live in New York or LA, I can’t recommend their improv shows enough. But sadly Freak Dance, which started as a UCB musical stage show (that I admittedly haven’t seen) doesn’t translate well to the big screen. Starring many of the original cast members, the film follows spoiled rich girl, Cocolonia (Megan Heyn) as she leaves behind her world of luxury to join a dance crew on the streets. Every challenge they encounter results in a dance fight, which at the start of the film resembles something out of a happy Japanese anime. On crack. When the Building Inspector General (writer/director Matt Besser) threatens to shut down the crew’s home base, Cocolonia and her new partner Funky Bunch (Michael Cassady) enter a big underground dance-off to win enough money and save the day. Using the “Freak Dance,” an extremely powerful (and potentially deadly), sexually-charged dance that makes the Lambada look like the electric slide, they have to defeat the best dancers around or else lose the beat forever.
There are lots of problems here, starting with what the filmmakers are lampooning. Everyone knows you can’t parody a parody. Well, films such as You Got Served and Step Up unintentionally teeter on the edge of self-parody as it is, making their lunacy difficult to effectively joke on (see also: Dance Flick). Things aren’t helped by the paper thin storyline: “We have to (blank) to earn enough money to save our (blank).” While it’s been done thousands of times, especially in comedies, this tired tale doesn’t necessarily break a film… unless there’s no funny.
The description alone is not promising, but I thought if anyone could make such a lousy premise work it would have to be either UCB or The Lonely Island. Turns out, that way of thinking had raised my expectations too high for what was delivered. I have a feeling the stage show is better than this, for one simple reason: the musical numbers are actually good. Like, professional musical theater good… and that hurts the film’s cause even more. The songs are jokey, but fit enough with the mood of the film that they don’t stand out as being funny. The whole time I kept asking myself “Were they trying to make fun of High School Musical or make an actual high school musical?” By the end I settled for the latter, which might wow a live audience, but doesn’t deliver the goods when you’re expecting a gut-busting comedy. Freak Dance comes across more as a Saturday morning cartoon version of Breakin’ than as a comedy musical in the vein of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America or South Park films. It’s almost like Besser and co-director Neil Mahoney were channeling Parker and Stone with their overuse of “Hang in there” inspirational posters and overly sincere dialogue delivery, but can never quite come close to the (now) Tony Award winners’ brilliance.
The DVD picture quality is clean, but looks a lot like an episode of Strangers With Candy and there are no complaints with the Dolby 5.1 mix. Freak Dance is certainly not the worst movie I’ve ever seen, but it’s far from the best. I’m pretty sure even the filmmakers know the picture is flawed as it came out in 2010 and has only now made its way to video. I honestly found it difficult to make it to the end of this thing, Doc.
But as the dedicated reviewer I am, I marched on and even forced myself to watch the special features including a bunch of (web?) spots warning against the dangers of the “freak dance”. Not once do they mention the risk of losing an hour and a half of your life, but these warnings should not go ignored. The first few spots got a chuckle out of me, but after a while they became repetitive and annoying. Ironically, the two deleted scenes are pretty funny, but an included extended scene is more of the same. There’s also a trailer and a directors’ commentary, both of which are better than the feature film – but not good enough to save it.
I could see the source material as having somewhat of a cult appeal, especially performed by expert improvisers, but it simply doesn’t work here. I have to give Freak Dance 1 out of 4 devils. It’s not even so bad that it’s good – it’s just a lackluster musical that tries too hard for your laughs. To those who have seen the stage show and are curious about the transition: give it a rental, I guess. If it ends up being your favorite film, Martin Lawrence will buy you a drink.