FREAK DANCE, 2010
Directed by Matt Besser and Neil Mahoney
Starring Joshua Allen, Kathryn Burns, Michael Daniel Cassady, Drew Droege, Megan Heyn, Hal Rudnick, Amy Poehler, Tim Meadows
Review by Mark Engberg
The ultra-pretentious world of Dance Theater is hilariously mocked in this eccentric satire from the creators of the Upright Citizen Brigade.
Admit it. You have gone out with your friends to the theater to see them. Maybe you even own a couple on DVD or Blu-ray. They are simply a fact of life during adolescence. Dance movies.
Is there anything more ridiculous than the narrative storyline of “You Got Served” or one of the “Step Up” movies? Is there anyone in the televised world more deserving to be spoofed than the super-competitive members of “America’s Best Dance Crew” as they enthusiastically grind their way for a chance to land a national touring contract?
Pick any decade and take a critical look at one of the more popular dance flicks or television shows from that era. No matter what year you choose, whether it’s an honored classic like the original “Fame” or “Footloose”, or an episode of “So You Think You Can Dance?” the potential for mockery is staggering. The costumes are traditionally over-the-top, the dialogue (if there is any) is usually nonsensical and absurd, and the acting is laughably melodramatic.
How can you NOT make fun of these movies? Especially when it is so dynamic and popular with the kids?
It doesn’t seem strange that Matt Besser, co-founder of the Upright Citizen Brigade, focused his full attention to satirize this genre that has captivated countless members of multiple generations. It seems strange that it took him this long to do it.
In truth, Besser adapted “Freak Dance” from his stage show of the same name at the UCB Theatre in Los Angeles. The production ran for nearly two years and promoted itself as “a straight up, activated and in-your-face musical theater extravaganza”. There are repeated but unspecific references to the Lambada, or as it is called here: The Forbidden Dirty Boogaloo.
“It’s not an improvised musical by any means,” Besser said at the Austin Film Festival, where his film had its world premiere last October. “But from having it on stage for two years in an improv theater, there was a lot of improv done on the movie, which I think honed it and made it a lot tighter than it would have been if we had just filmed it from my first script. I’m really glad that didn’t happen.”
The story of “Freak Dance” centers on Cocolonia (Megan Heyn), the generic spoiled, rich girl who has a preternatural need to erotically dance. She escapes the ornate clutches of her haughty mother (played with excellent snobbery and disdain by Amy Poehler) and joins the ranks of a gang of inner-city street dancers, led by Marky Mark look-alike Funky Bunch (Michael Daniel Cassady).
When the Naziesque Building Inspector General (Besser plays this part himself) threatens to close down their Fantaseez Community Center, Funky Bunch and Cocolonia compete in an underground dance-off against the nefarious-yet-oddly accurate male Prima Donna named Dazzle (Drew Droege).
“I’m going to grind you down like you freaked my sister,” Dazzle sneers to Funky Bunch as they get ready to throw down on the dance floor.
On paper, the words may not seem so funny. But spoken aloud, the line detonates because it is delivered with Droege’s quivering passion that borders on hysterical. And that brand of physical comedy is what makes an apocalyptic comedy like this work. And it is absolutely the right approach when developing a parody about dance films, which are already absurd as it is.
“We were doing these improv shows to raise money for our theater and it was just like all these dance movies where the community center shuts down and they have to win a dance contest to save the community center,” Besser remembers when thinking where the story originated. “That got me watching ‘Breakin’’ and I remembered how ludicrous it was. And that got me watching every dance movie ever. And they all are pretty much the same.”
“Freak Dance” is filled with plenty of funny lines and extreme humor that is clearly designed to offend many audience members. But like a bad season of “Saturday Night Live”, these jokes would completely bomb if the performances were lacking. For this reason, Besser and co-director Neil Mahoney credit their actors for their creative abilities and improv acting.
“Being onstage was basically like dress rehearsal for two years,” according to Mahoney. “This amazing cast that was in the stage production, as well as the movie, really took complete ownership of their characters. They added to them, and fleshed them out, and got to experience them for an extended length of time, which I think probably for an actor is a great process to have.”
As a matter of fact, Cassady scored the movie’s original soundtrack, when he wasn’t playing the central character of Funky Bunch.
Like most dance entertainment, it seems pointless trying to explain what makes the material funny or engaging. In order to truly appreciate the forbidden anarchy of “Freak Dance”, you need to see and experience it for yourselves.
But in order to gain the full appreciation for this humor, keep in mind that the competitive grinding style of “freak dancing” is an actual ritualistic battle between two dancers on the floor. One dancer stands passive and nodding while the one grinding tries to impress the other with erotic and suggestive bodily moves.
Fans of the UCB will definitely want to stay for the end credits to catch Amy Poehler (who was an original UCB Theatre founder herself) performing her showstopper. These citizens have a natural gift for physical and absurdist comedy.