Amherst Magazine

A Comedy Writer’s Answer to Dance Movies

Reviewed by Josh Bell ’02

[Film] The easiest classification for Freak Dance, written and co-directed by Matt Besser ’89, would be as a parody of dance movies such as You Got Served and the Step Up series. But while it features explicit references to those movies and other well-known dance sagas, Freak Dance should not be mistaken for merely a spoof. It’s not the Wayans brothers’ Dance Flick; it’s a full-on original musical that owes as much (if not more) to the classics, including The Warriors and West Side Story, as it does to throwaway pop-culture sensations. Besser and his collaborators are well aware of the conventions of dance movies, but they don’t settle for dutifully tweaking each one.

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Freak Dance opens with a direct parody of dance movies, as spoiled rich girl Cocolonia (Megan Heyn) practices her classical moves in front of her mirror then packs up her copy of How to Be Lower-Class for Rich Dummies. She heads off to an audition at a studio in “the ghetto,” against the wishes of her uptight mother. The rich snob who learns to cut loose is a well-worn trope of the dance-movie genre, and Besser has plenty of fun with it throughout the movie, especially during a whole musical number about Cocolonia’s need to adapt to the booty-centric dance style of her new companions.

Songs such as “Work That Butt” fill the movie, and the ambition of the songwriting and staging gives Freak Dance an impressive scope beyond mere parody. Besser and co-songwriters Brian Fountain and Jake Anthony are adept at creating Broadway-style tunes that are both catchy and funny, mocking musical and dance clichés while also effectively embracing them. Besser is a founding member of the influential comedy troupe the Upright Citizens Brigade, and Freak Dance was developed as a UCB stage production before being adapted to film. Besser and fellow original UCB members Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh and Ian Roberts all show up in small roles, and Besser even gets his own musical number as the evil building inspector seeking to shut down the dance studio, singing passionately about the building’s various code violations.

Such goofy humor, stretched beyond its breaking point so that it swings back around and becomes hilarious again, infuses many UCB projects and was no doubt honed in the two years the film’s cast members spent refining the show onstage. At times, those stage origins lend Freak Dance the feel of a fun, loose Broadway musical, and it’s easy to imagine it becoming a mainstream theater hit in the age of The Book of Mormon and similar shows.

Sometimes the staginess is limiting, though, and Besser and co-director Neil Mahoney aren’t always able to make the production numbers feel cinematic. Still, with accomplished professional dancers filling out the backgrounds, those numbers can go toe-to-toe with the dances in much higher-profile, ostensibly serious Hollywood movies. Usually, those high-profile movies are watchable for the dances and at best
tolerable for everything in between; Freak Dance manages to showcase great dancing, plus plenty of clever humor during the down time.

Bell, the film critic for Las Vegas Weekly, is a frequent contributor to the Amherst Creates section.