This is shaping up to be a year of superlatives. Mad Max: Fury Road is the best new film I’ve seen since beginning this blog, and any film which tops it will inherit that title. And Dancin’ – It’s On! is, by a mile, the worst, and any film which somehow sinks beneath it will likewise take the crown.
That Dancin’ could be surpassed in wretchedness seems to me far less likely than Max being surpassed in greatness. For Dancin’ – It’s On! is a film of rare ineptitude; so complete a disaster, so far in every respect from quality that it induces the same kind of giddy joy as the discovery of a truly great film. Some bad films have one or two successful aspects that the rest of the film lets down. But not Dancin’. It truly is The Room meets Step Up.
Jennifer (Witney Carson of Dancing with the Stars) is sent to spend the summer with her semi-estranged father Jerry (Gary Daniels) at his hotel in Panama City, Florida. There, she meets a variety of characters, most notably “The Captain” (Russell Ferguson), the doorman who doubles as a sage, and Ken (Chehon Wespi-Tschopp of So You Think You Can Dance?), a dishwasher in the hotel’s kitchen, who also happens to be a competitive dancer.
Jennifer and Ken soon hit it off, spending a night on the town, and love seems to be blossoming. But there are impediments; Jerry disapproves of the relationship and has a smarmy gofer, Danny (Matt Marr) take the reluctant Jennifer on a date, while Ken’s dance partner Shotsy¹ (Jordan Clark) has been nursing an unrequited love for him.
Meanwhile, Ken discovers that Hal Sanders (director/co-writer David Winters), who lives alone in the hotel and mourns the loss of his son, is actually a legendary dancer and choreographer. He begs Sanders to train him and Shotsy to compete in a Florida-wide dance competition, but his embattled relationship with Jennifer prevents him from focusing.
As for Jennifer, Danny has convinced her that Ken and Shotsy are a couple, and she breaks off with Ken, agreeing to be Danny’s dance partner in the competition. But true love wins out, Jennifer and Ken are reunited (and partner up) while Danny and Shotsy are brought together by their shared competitive spirit, and all is happily resolved at the big competition–which the Captain emcees, of course.
The failings of Dancin’ – It’s On! are so numerous I’m not sure where to begin. The title is certainly a red flag, though the hyphen (not readily apparent on the poster and absent from most online references) makes what seemed an unintelligible title merely stupid. It would suggest that this the sequel to some property entitled Dancin’, but the only work of that name is a 1979 revue created by Bob Fosse, which seems a dubious progenitor. So, Dancin’ – It’s On! is an original.
Well…no. It’s not original in the slightest. The script (by Winters and David A. Prior) achieves a purity of cliché that a blatant parody wouldn’t get away with. The characters and situations are from the first predictable and one-dimensional; Rich Girl, Poor Boy, Disapproving Father, Unrequited Lover, Smarmy Twerp, Reclusive Genius, etc. About the least predictable thing the script does is not give Danny a comeuppance; in fact, once he teams up with Shotsy, the film seems to forget that he is an antagonist. Not to mention, for the plot to work, the characters by and large must act like idiots–Jennifer and Ken in particular are so easily manipulated it’s insane.
The film can’t even keep its clichés straight–after the scene where Jerry tells Danny to woo Jennifer, even hinting that a promotion will follow, there’s a scene where Jerry summons Ken–while punching a punching bag, no less–and you’d expect him to say “Stay away from my daughter” or something along those lines, right? Wrong. He tells Ken not to hurt Jennifer and to prove his worth. A cliché, no doubt, but also a total failure of continuity!
The script also tries and fails to create colorful supporting characters; The Captain is clearly the Designated Scene Stealer (that isn’t a TV Trope? I’m shocked), calling Jennifer “milady” and suchlike, but the attempt is so transparent it falls completely flat. And the lobby of the hotel is populated by eccentrics; contortionists, a couple dressed as Rhett and Scarlett, and a concierge who quotes Shakespeare–always the most obvious lines imaginable, and usually to set up a terrible joke, such as “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo? Ah, there he is, Bob Romeo” (which only perpetuates the near-universal miscomprehension of that line, but no matter).
But as bad as the script is–and it is very, very bad–it’s the acting and the technical aspects of the film which make it such an utter disaster. To put it bluntly, the acting is of a rare badness. With few exceptions, the actors recite their dialogue in the most awkward way imaginable, suggesting not only a lack of acting ability but an unfamiliarity with the concepts of acting, drama, or speech.
To give the cast their due, for the most part they are equally bad–they may perish, but they perish together. Carson betrays no ability to speak her lines naturally, Wespi-Tschopp fails completely to convey emotions through dance, Marr is so transparent a manipulator he couldn’t fool a child, Clark brings out none of the pathos of her situation, and Daniels–who has at least had something of a career in Z-grade action films–mostly fascinates by his elusive accent; a native Englishman, he makes one think more of Tommy Wiseau.
Ferguson at least has a trace of charisma; The Captain is a terrible character, but by default he becomes the most likable. Winters, on the other hand, is merely distracting at first (he’s a dead ringer for Jon Polito), and subsequently fails to be adorably irascible, his delivery being as awkward as everyone else’s, though he is responsible for the one moment that I enjoyed unironically; after putting Ken and Shotsy through a demanding practice, he agrees to break for lunch, and is then shown eating a sandwich in front of them. When he replies that he never said anything about their lunch, he then quips “Want a pickle?”
No, it’s not much, but you take what you can get.
If the utter artificiality of the acting defeats any attempts at comedy, romance, the technical side of things massacres them. Even the first second of the film is inept–there’s a brief flash of a credit which reminds one of nothing so much as an incompletely taped-over commercial. Then the film begins, and the credits (in a font which seems like the black-sheep cousin of Comic Sans) and photography (which suggests either a cell phone c. 2010 or a cheap camcorder) let you know just what you’re in for.
The cinematography really works against the film at nearly every turn. Were the rest of the film technically faultless, the flat lighting and generally cheap look would bring it down, but Dancin’ is anything but. It’s so bad, in fact, that the few shots which seem properly lit or remotely well-composed (an imaginary dance between Ken and Shotsy’s shadows) are more disconcerting than refreshing. I’m not saying cinematographer Alan Roberts (who’s also responsible for the editing, which is certainly not good) had much to work with, but someone who, according to the IMDb, has been in the industry for 40+ years, should be able to do better than this.
Winters’ direction is amateurish throughout, the flashes of ambition (depicting, in a nightmare, the helicopter explosion that killed Sanders’ son) only adding to the embarrassment. There’s a seediness to the whole thing which is decidedly–and rather sadly–fascinating. Given his lengthy career, which encompasses a role in West Side Story and two Emmy nominations, that he has come to this makes his life story surely as worthy of a film as Steve Jobs’.
There’s a strange air of artificiality which pervades Dancin’. The production design is a particular failure; early on, we see the home Jennifer shares with her mother (Ava Fabian), and it looks more like a home decor showroom than a real house, while the hotel Jerry manages is as far from genuine glamour as this film is from genuine quality; as it is, a Super 8 would be far more photogenic, and the idea that anyone, let alone an artiste of Hal Sanders’ supposed renown, could live there is laughable.
The sound recording, while not obviously overdubbed, feels strangely off as well, though that may be more the fault of the terrible delivery than anything else. Likewise, the climactic competition feels in spots like it was composited together in post-production; the crowds and the dancers don’t always seem to occupy the same reality.
As this is a dance film, I should mention the dancing, but in all honesty it’s totally unmemorable. The only number that really sticks in my memory is Ken trying to work out his frustrations through dance, and that because it’s hilariously stupid. It ends with him kicking a deck chair into the hotel’s swimming pool, an act which Sanders rebukes as ruining a good routine (which should negate any suggestion that Sanders knows what he’s talking about), before doing a brief routine himself, which can only be described as far from Winters’ best work.
There’s a soundtrack and songs, most of which are thoroughly generic pop.
The film also functions at times as a quasi-infomercial for the charms of Panama Beach; it does not appear to be remotely worth the promotion.
Supposedly, the budget of Dancin’ was $12 million; I cannot believe it cost even a tenth of that sum. You’d think for that money they could’ve at least lit the damn thing properly.
Leaving the theater, I asked the staff if I had been the only person to buy a ticket to Dancin’, and was told I was, but that “the company” had bought 10 tickets for it to make it appear as if it were doing business. Now, I’m not sure whether “the company” means the theater chain, the production company, or the distributor, but I can only say that, having paid to see it in a theater, I don’t regret a penny of it.
Here, by the way, is the trailer, which makes the film look about as polished as humanly possible:
¹Could it be the name was derived from the German “schatzi“, meaning “sweetheart” or “darling”?