In 10 Words or Less
A relatively sincere musical comedy from the Upright Citizens Brigade
Loves: UCB, good musicals, Amy Poehler
Likes: Good spoofs, absurd comedy
Dislikes: Dance movies
Hates: Weak endings
I recently had the opportunity to enjoy the UCBEast's Diamond Lion show, where they improvise a musical each show. If you've never been (and live near New York City or Los Angeles), it's a must-see experience, as it's incredible to see these people create a musical on the fly. Sure there are awkward moments once in a while, where a rhyme is flubbed or a moment missed, but overall, their talent (and the fact that its being improvised) makes it amazing to watch.
Doing the same thing in a scripted full-length feature film doesn't have quite the
same effect, lacking the immediacy and risky energy, but on the other hand, it can be perfected and presented in its best possible light. That's exactly what happens in Freak Dance, which began its life as a stage show at USBTLA, the west coast Upright Citizens Brigade theater, and now is a movie, written by one of the UCB founders, Matt Besser, and co-directed by Besser and Neil Mahoney (who's worked on several notable comedy shorts, including the recent Between Two Ferns special.) Together, they tell the tale of a well-to-do ballerina with a love of the lower class, a rebellious street dancer with a groin of gold, and their clash with an evil stripper dance crew led by the morally bankrupt Dazzle.
At first, Freak Dance seems like another genre parody film, in the forgettable vein of Dance Flick, as, after a quick story set-up with rich Cocolonia (Megan Heyn) and her socialite mother (famed UCBer Amy Poehler), we're treated to a silly series of dance crew performances set in a hospital. However, out of nowhere, the entire affair transforms into a sincere Broadway musical number that sets the tone for the rest of the film. Though it steals, borrows and pays homage to scenes and ideas from any number of dance-centric films, at its core it's all about the big musical number. Thankfully, it has them down pat, and it wouldn't have surprised in the least if, looking at the credits, I saw the name Bobby Lopez, rather than newcomer Brian Fountain. Whether it's "Rich Bitch Work That Butt" or "Your Bathroom's Too Dark to Pee," almost every song and performance has its musical beats down pat, delivering silly lyrics with catchy tunes.
Unfortunately, as good as the musical numbers are, the presentation could be better, as the film doesn't have that level of polish seen in bigger-budget musicals, which clashes a bit with the quality of the songs. Also, when they aren't singing and dancing, and are instead throwing around gags, the pacing suffers. Sure, Poehler is solid as the stuck-up mother, and Besser is ridiculous as an investigator threatening to shut down the dancers' club, but the energy of the musical numbers far outshines the comedy, leaving the film a series of peaks and valleys. Perhaps better use of the many cameos could have helped, but most of them have little to do, with Tim Meadows' Irish cop being the most literal example of a cameo walk-on in a feature film, as he actually walks into the room, drops a few lines and walks out. At least the other members of the most-famous UCB foursome, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh, get a bit more to do, with Walsh's famous offspring making a big impression.
After all the fun musical moments, a dirty dance-off between Cocolonia's crew and Dazzle's team is a big disappointment, as they try to one-up each other in a series of nasty, but not very funny sequences. Though it's followed by some gags that salvage the film a bit, it was an anticlimactic finish to an entertaining musical. Full credit to the UCB for avoiding going down the parody path, but the follow-through feels more like it's a 97-percent effort, rather than going all the way.
The film arrives on one DVD, packaged in a standard-width keepcase. The disc has an unusually shaky anamorphic widescreen menu, with options to watch the film, check out the extras and select scenes. There are no audio options, while subtitles are included in English SDH.
The anamorphic widescreen transfer is not the sharpest presentation you'll ever see, as it frequently is soft and light on fine detail. The black levels are good, and the colors are pretty solid (though they do get a touch too intense toward the end of the film.) There's a surprising amount of pixelation and compression artifacts in spots, with the dark scenes at the end looking quite blocky.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is better than the video, separating the elements in the more dynamic (read: musical) scenes, to create a deeper soundfield. There's nothing noticeably dynamic about the mix, as the use of the surrounds is pretty consistent, with the rear handling music enhancement and occasional sound effects, while the dialogue sits mainly in the center channel and sometimes in the sides (an effect that's handled well.) Everything is clean, though there seems to be some minor recording hiccups in places.
The key extra is an audio commentary by Besser and co-director Neil Mahoney. It's a rather informative affair, explaining the origin of the story and the original stage show and exploring the making of the film. The duo point out lots of details you might miss, cuts that were made from the script and elements that changed from the stage show. Some of the more interesting bits through are when one of the participants learns something about the production from the other (a situation that explains quite a bit about the movie.) On another note, it's not clear if it was a conscious choice, but they rarely reference any of the cameos by well-known performers.
Two deleted scenes and one extended scene are also included. The two deleted scenes feature a pair of musical numbers by nerdy dancer Egghead, one a quality paean to mediocrity and the other a semi-serious song that sets up a joke that didn't make complete sense when the song was cut. The extended scene is a slightly longer version of one of the film's bigger numbers, adding three verses back in. Honestly, they were better off cut from the film.
"The Dangers of Freak Dancing" is a set of eight faux PSAs from the film's cast, educating teens to the downside of sexy, sexy dancing. Using lots of memorable rhymes and the usual PSA rhythym, some of these are better than others, but the most interesting thing is seeing the actress who plays illiterate Latina Sassy out of make-up and costume. You can watch these individually or in a continuous block.
Wrapping things up is the film's short trailer, which hides any trace of the film's movie-musical elements.
The Bottom Line
Any expectations I had coming into this film were severely misguided, as it's not (entirely) a parody of the dance-movie trend, but more of a sincere Broadway musical, like Avenue Q or The Book of Mormon, loaded with fun numbers. Unfortunately, it's construction is choppy and the pacing of bouncing between gag-heavy comedy and musical moments makes things uneven (while the ending and its lead-up leaves something to be desired.) The DVD looks good and sounds very nice, and there are a decent amount of extras, but this is more likely to appeal to fans of modern musicals than to fans of the UCB (unless shows like Diamond Lion are your main thing.)
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.