Matt Besser regrets having labeled his new musical, Freak Dance, a parody. “What would you call Rocky Horror?” he asked, standing at the back of the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, following a May screening. Rocky Horror Picture Show was a parody of Frankenstein films in a way, he continued, but no one really looks at the film in that light. It’s an apt comparison.
A lot of film parodies count on recreating specific moments from mainstream films, what Besser calls “Remember this?” moments. The scene is replayed and overplayed, looked down upon and mocked with exaggeration. Think of any example in the past eight years or so with “Movie” in the title. Date Movie, Superhero Movie; they count on their audience recognizing something, then making it stupid.
Freak Dance, now available on DVD, doesn’t operate that way. It certainly goes over the top, yet sustains the strategy throughout the film without becoming obvious or grating. There are nods to other films, but they are often more homage than parody. The movie most referenced isn’t even a dance movie, but the street gang cult classic The Warriors. Freak Dance borrows the faceless radio announcer, and adapts some of the gang names (the most amusing being “The Softball Furies”). A closet Broadway junkie, Besser even mentioned in May that Les Miserables inspired a Horatio Sanz cameo.
The movie follows classic comedy rules in its structure, particularly the big ending number where everyone unites for one shiny, happy moment. The plot is after-school-special simple: when the city threatens to shut down their studio, the dancers at Fantasies have to win a dance-off’s prize money for improvements. (As the Inspector, played by Besser in full Danny Kate mode, notes, “The bathroom’s too dark to pee.”) Everyone must overcome a personal demon: The hotshot Funky Bunch has to rise to the challenge of leading the group. Cocolonia must overcome her rich upbringing and learn to dance “street.” Barrio is haunted by his brother’s death, Sassy can’t read, and Egghead is too smart. Together they must also beat rival dance studio Dazzles, which indulges in “private dancing.”
For any of this to work, the cast has to commit to each moment and play everything straight, no matter how ridiculous the song, dance or cheesy line. Fortunately everyone does, especially Michael Daniel Cassady as Funky Bunch, Megan Heyn as Cocolonia and Drew Droege as Dazzle. Funky has a chip on his shoulder, proud of being a dancer from the street despite his studio’s reputation of being “cock-centric” because of their “dance bulges.” Cocolonia is bubbly, naïve and always enthusiastic. As the nemesis, Dazzle tries to lure Cocolonia into “sex dancing;” simultaneously he doesn’t so much bend gender as obliterate it.
More than anyone, these three have to be “on” every onscreen moment while remaining believable within the context of the story. They play it perfectly. Everyone is on the same page, including all of the supporting actors. Upright Citizens Brigade fans will be particularly happy to see Amy Poehler as Cocoloina’s mother and cameo appearances by Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh.
It helps that Freak Dance was a UCB stage show for two years before filming began. The principals had time to work out every gag in front of an audience, and it shows. There is very little fat in the script, which is packed with jokes, and the few running gags never overstay their welcome. Barrio rarely stops talking about how he doesn’t want to talk about his brother, who was killed in a pot deal gone wrong. Likewise, there are several things that “dancing is all about,” including staying away from drugs and reading, and whenever these are cited in dialogue, without fail a sign bearing those words lurks somewhere in the background amongst the “Hang in There!” kitty posters. It’s reminiscent of the gag in Airplane! II: The Sequel where Lloyd Bridges studies a photo portrait of himself and concludes, “Things sure haven’t changed.”
To its credit, the movie avoids using bad dancing as a punchline. There are silly dances, and one truly disgusting “move” toward the end, but there are also some amazing sequences. Besser confirmed that was by design, and that any extra who doesn’t have a line is a real dancer, some of whom were tapped from such reality shows as So You Think You Can Dance. The quick, jerky camera work in certain scenes enhances some of dancing, but the moves are well choreographed all the same.
Freak Dance screams “cult classic,” although movies ultimately must earn that designation over time. But it strikes the right tone of earnest absurdity, it has hummable songs, and it holds up to repeated viewings. The audience at the Brattle certainly enjoyed it. And, rare for an effort boasting such an alt-comedy pedigree, it’s legitimately uplifting. Where’s the parody in that?