Upright Citizens Brigade co-founder Matt Besser had never written a musical before "Freak Dance," his answer to perhaps Hollywood's cheesiest genre, but you couldn't tell that by the finished product: a movie that's been a decade in the making.
Although "Freak Dance" includes all the tropes and archetypes made famous by films like "Breakin,'" "Save The Last Dance," "You Got Served," "Dirty Dancing" and all of the "Step Up" movies (they're making yet another one), creator Matt Besser doesn't call it a parody -- and it's certainly nothing like the 2009 dance movie spoof "Dance Flick."
"When they started casting for 'Dance Flick' I thought, 'Oh no! We missed it! I procrastinated too long and they're going to use all the jokes,'" Besser recalled in an interview. "Then I went and saw it and realized they didn't have any of the same jokes. They took a different take on it."
Besser started writing the script for "Freak Dance" back in 2001, when the original UCB theater in New York City was shut down by the fire department for not having a second entrance. As he and the other original UCB members (Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh) did improv shows to raise money for their new venue, Besser was reminded of the plots of every dance movie ever. Then "You Got Served" came out and Besser realized that breakdancing was cool again but the movies about it were still terrible, relying on the same plot lines of the cheesy dance movies of his youth in the 70s and 80s.
So he set out to write a good one -- not necessarily a parody -- but a story that builds on the cliched structure of dance movies in a funny way.
"What did make 'Dance Flick' coming out a bummer was when I would try describing the movie to people and they'd say, 'I'm not interested in a dance movie parody,'" Besser explained. "I don't think 'Freak Dance' is a parody; it's more reference than anything. People don't think of 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show' as a 'Frankenstein' parody. It's kind of like that."
Parody or not, the plot of "Freak Dance" hits all the marks of a stereotypical dance movie with a satirical wit. Its star, the rich, beautiful and naive ballet dancer Cocolonia (Megan Heyn) learns to street dance with Funky Bunch, a lower class boy dancer who shares a similar dream. But before the sexy odd couple can fall in love, they have to team up with other comically two-dimensional dancers to save the Fantaseez Community Center from a mean, old Building Department manager and an evil gang banger dance troupe. And, of course, it's got your requisite "snaps" fight.
"Freak Dance" was put onstage as a musical comedy show for two years at the UCB theater in Los Angeles. It wasn't until 2010 that the movie became a fully choreographed reality featuring cameos by the original UCB four plus Tim Meadows, Andy Daly and Horatio Sanz. But Besser didn't just focus on the funny. His lead actor Michael Cassady (Funky Bunch) was also the composer. The comedians all had breakdance doubles and Besser brought in dancing "mercenaries" from "America's Top Dance Crew" to make it more legitimate.
"We didn't want part of the joke to be, 'Look how bad the dancing is,'" Besser said. "I'd never written a musical before so I wanted to make sure that the music and dancing moved the plot along. Doing it on stage for two years allowed us to change things that weren't working, making everyone more confident."
The music in "Freak Dance" also separates it from "Dance Flick" in that its much more creative. Instead of parodying hip-hop dance movies with hip-hop songs, "Freak Dance" sets the song, "Work That Butt, Bitch," the one where the street dancers teach Cocolonia how to grind, to the tune of something straight out of "My Fair Lady."
"I've always been a musical fan, and I wrote a lot of the lyrics but there were musical geniuses behind the songs," Besser said. "I'd say, 'I want this to be a 'Les Miz' or 'Music Man' type of song and they'd create it."
Will "Freak Dance" rival "The Book of Mormon" on Broadway? Probably not, but it is a really funny musical that both fans and fans of mocking dance movies can enjoy. And if you actually liked "Dance Flick," you might like this too. Just don't expect any Wayans brothers cameos.
"Freak Dance" is available on cable via Video On Demand and through the website, http://freakdancemovie.com. This July it will be released on DVD and made available on Netflix and iTunes (the soundtrack is also available there).
Follow Katla McGlynn on Twitter: www.twitter.com/katlamcglynn