As you know, I sometimes enjoy the dance movies. So when I was preparing my review for KATE a while back and realized there was one starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, I knew I had to see it.
It’s called MAKE IT HAPPEN and it’s about a young lady who tries to make it happen. It came out in 2008, when Winstead had just done DEATH PROOF and LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD and was about to do SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD. She plays Lauryn Kirk, a small town Indiana dancer who dreams of going to a prestigious dance school in Chicago. It’s the standard “Ever since Mom and Dad died…” situation: her and her older brother Joel (John Reardon, WHITE CHICKS, FALLEN, later “Young Kevin Flynn / Clu [body double]” in TRON LEGACY) only had each other and are very close and he’s overly protective of her. They run their dad’s garage, with her working as bookkeeper, but she’s going to Chicago to audition for the school, and he’s in denial that she might really be leaving.
Of course, the auditions are hard, and she fails to impress the openly snobbish admissions guy (Gordon Tanner, HOME ALONE: THE HOLIDAY HEIST). To be fair, her standard hip hop moves don’t seem impressive, but he really should be more friendly when giving her the terrible advice to be “softer, more sensual and feminine.”
Dreading returning to Shit-Ass, Indiana without having made it happen, Lauryn stops for coffee, her car is towed, she’s stranded in the pouring rain, and a saintly waitress named Dana (Tessa Thompson, CREED, LITTLE WOODS), who we later hear has a habit of “taking in strays,” lets her dry off at her apartment.
Next thing you know Lauryn is crashing on Dana’s couch trying to make it happen in the big city. Dana even hooks her up with a probationary job as bookkeeper at her night job, a club called Ruby’s. We quickly learn that the club’s main attraction is the nightly burlesque performances by Dana and fellow dancers Carmen (Julissa Bermudez, Hunters) and Brooke (Ashley Roberts of the Pussycat Dolls). Lauryn, of course, doesn’t think she’d be able to do that, secretly practices dancing on the stage, begs for a shot when the other dancers don’t show up, is at first clumsy and almost booed off the stage, then starts doing her hip hop moves, wins over the entire crowd instantly and after like two or three minutes of dancing struts off the stage to deafening applause like she just killed it in Carnegie Hall.
There are two ways to do the story of working here – either everyone is loving and cool and welcomes her to the family like normal people, or most are cold and suspicious of her. This takes the second, more frustrating route. We have to see her win over the needlessly skeptical manager Brenda (Karen LeBlanc, DOLAN’S CADILLAC) first as an accountant then as a dancer, and the even more needlessly hostile and jealous Carmen. I guess Brooke doesn’t really matter, she doesn’t get much of a character. Lauryn also has to win over her brother after she lies to him and pretends she made it into the school. When he shows up unannounced at Ruby’s and sees her PG-13 sexy dance he acts like he’s George C. Scott in HARDCORE, but later (after blurting out his long held resentments about the death of their father) he turns into a normal person.
Lauryn also starts a relationship with “musical director” (house DJ) Russ (Riley Smith, EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS), who I didn’t trust because he wears a brown leather jacket like he thinks he’s Tyler Durden. He’s one of those guys in these types of movies who looks a little wrong for the “cool” outfits and spiky hair, but I accepted him more once I realized he was the same guy that played Todd Schellenger, Cindy’s jock boyfriend on Freaks & Geeks. He lives in an enormous loft with a fluorescent light of a martini glass on the wall. At home he makes beats and plays saxophone, trying to make it happen after losing a recording contract in his youth.
This was only Thompson’s second movie (after the WHEN A STRANGER CALLS remake) and with that in mind it’s a good role – she’s one of the leads, and she gets to do some dance numbers. But she disappears for a while in the middle and I’d rather get to know her character better than have the whole love story with Riley. If it was FLASHDANCE it would let us know what her dreams were. What she was trying to make happen. Well, if you watch the deleted scenes you can see why she disappears: they cut out a heavy subplot that would’ve done all that. She’s thinking about quitting dancing and going to school to be a teacher, gets pregnant, gets engaged, has a miscarriage. Also I want to note that she says she’s “a Seattle girl.”
Unfortunately this pretty much is FLASHDANCE updated with less style and less personality. It took me a little bit to realize the title is even a lyric from my dad and mine’s favorite Academy Award winning jam “Flashdance (What a Feeling).” She’s not a welder but she does dream of going to the dance academy and finds her style by dancing at this club that’s described as some kind of elevated burlesque. They have a largely female audience and definitely play down any incidents of horny men in the crowd, but the dancing is still about stripping down to panties, shaking butts around and writhing on the floor. In one of the dances she wears a tuxedo-shirt-bib-thing like Alex wore during the sexy-lobster-eating scene. We also have a scene where she stops to watch breakdancers performing on the street, cheers them on and joins them a little.
And yes, there is some chair interaction, but no water, which would maybe have moved them into lawsuit territory.
If we’re going to compare the two, the love story here is less gross. He does introduce himself in a pretty harass-y sort of way (catching her sneaking into the club and telling her she has to give him his phone number to be let in), but he’s not her boss or older and doesn’t use riches to get his way. The biggest thing going for FLASHDANCE though is that the dance scenes are way better, on multiple levels. If you’re just looking for sexiness, obviously Winstead and Thompson doing this kind of dancing is gonna get you there, but they’re not even trying to compete with the hubba hubba levels created by dramatically lit closeups of Jennifer Beals splashing water around. More importantly to me, the costumes and stuff are less imaginative and the dancing, while fine, doesn’t seem as impressive. Like, one of the numbers she’s wearing a suit with shiny pinstripes and a fedora, and it seems inspired by “Smooth Criminal” and maybe some Janet Jackson stuff. But the feeling is more Not bad, Mary Elizabeth Winstead! than the Oh shit, how does she move like that? you want in a dance movie.
Admittedly, I suspect that’s because Winstead and the others used doubles a little less than Beals did (with the exception of the opening scene, where they strategically hide “Lauryn’s” face with her hair and hoody), but that just shows you why it’s okay to use doubles. You want the dancing to be spectacular.
Choreographer: Tracy Phillips (assistant choreographer, JACKASS NUMBER TWO, actress in HELL RIDE)
Maybe it’s unfair to compare it to FLASHDANCE. It’s also unfair to compare it to my favorite modern dance movie, STEP UP 3, but I’m going to anyway. Sharni Vinson is an actress with a background in ballet so she can do some stuff, but they surround her with people who are primarily dancers, not actors, make the ones who are better at acting co-leads, and all the dance scenes lean heavier on them. That works best. I also just prefer the movies where you have to start a crew or join a crew or defeat a rival crew. I’d rather have her join those guys on the street, or bring them to Ruby’s. There’s a scene here where Lauryn goes out with the Ruby’s staff after her first day working there. She doesn’t really fit in and they’re dressed to the nines and she’s wearing a t-shirt and a hoody. But then they go to a club where STEP UP/YOU GOT SERVED style dance battles are happening and I thought, “Ah ha, now she can use her real style and impress them, and she’s more appropriately dressed than they are too.” Instead she drinks a beer and pouts and never joins them. And there’s never another scene where she makes up for it.
Another missed opportunity: They should have a part where they’re fucked because they have to get to some place and their car breaks down and she busts out her Indiana auto garage skills. But no. They don’t make that happen.
Like Alex in FLASHDANCE, Lauryn eventually gets an audition in front of those uptight starch collar gatekeeper Illinois elites. I’m not saying it’s bad dancing, and I appreciate that she climbs up a ladder that she didn’t know was gonna be there, but to me it’s not a satisfying dance climax. It’s definitely not knock-their-socks-off good like Alex’s (though she does do a backflip). It doesn’t have a sense of “I am incorporating a variety of things I learned throughout the movie” other than just she shows her body and acts sexy. And worst of all it doesn’t have a feeling of “I’m proving myself on my own terms,” because she wins over the asshole guy by being “sensual” like he told her to.
So this is a weak dance movie. But I do admit that there’s something comforting about this particular formula of melodrama, and Winstead and Thompson are both very likable actresses, and it was cool to see them dance. So I don’t regret watching it.
MAKE IT HAPPEN is directed by Darren Grant (veteran of many Destiny’s Child videos, including “Survivor”) and written by Duane Adler (who had already written SAVE THE LAST DANCE, THE WAY SHE MOVES, STEP UP and SAVE THE LAST DANCE 2) with Nicole Avril (Love Boat: The Next Wave, Sex and the City). Avril has since written three Hallmark movies, one of them about dance (A NUTCRACKER CHRISTMAS starring Amy Acker) and one about Seattle (FASHIONABLY YOURS, filmed in Vancouver). Adler has written and directed two more dance movies, MAKE YOUR MOVE and HEARTBEATS, while collecting those STEP UP checks. MAKE IT HAPPEN was a theatrical release internationally, but DTV in the U.S., and considered a commercial failure, which perhaps explains why he never made TAKE YOUR PASSION or DANCE RIGHT THROUGH YOUR LIFE or I AM RHYTHM NOW let alone IN A WORLD MADE OF STEEL MADE OF STONE.