Revisiting the African American ball culture first made famous by Jennie Livingston’s 1990 New York-set documentary “Paris is Burning” and the Madonna single “Vogue,” Sheldon Larry’s colorful movie musical “Leave It On the Floor” takes place in a similar Los Angeles scene. Made on the cheap and extremely rough around the edges, Larry’s derivative tale of a young black man booted from his home for being gay and discovering a crowd where he finally belongs compensates for its shortcomings with a lively display of movement and sound. Thanks to Beyoncé choreographer Frank Gaston Jr., “Leave on the the Floor” is not entirely dismissible as an amateur work, although it approaches that fate a few times. While not exactly successful, it has plenty of dazzling attributes to save it from outright failure.
Set in El Monte, CA, the story follows Brad (Ephraim Sykes, a stage actor making his feature debut, like most of the cast), whose mean-spirited mother turns him loose after she discovering him watching gay porn. Finding his way to a dance club, Brad is seduced by the aggressive Princess (Philip Evelyn), who takes him back to a home populated by a half dozen members of the ball scene, a world of rambunctious fashion displays, eye-popping dance moves and–in this version, anyway–the regular tendency to burst into song.
Glenn Gaylord’s screenplay awkwardly expands into an ensemble piece, following numerous subplots involving various members of the household, fleshing out the portrait of the scene. While Brad meets a pickpocketing rebel and falls into an uneasy love triangle, the moody, cross-dressing house mother Queef (Barbie-Q), eagerly awaits the release of her husband Caldwell (Demarkes Dogan) from jail. Queef is the requisite sassy know-it-all with the best lines. “Were you talking to me?” she barks at Brad when he tries to get on her good side. “I was glistening,” she says, a term explained as “gay listening.” Queef’s smarminess gives the movie a fun element of self-awareness to balance off its cheesier moments. When Brad gets emotional, Queef barks, “You been hangin’ around Tyler Perry sets, or what?”
Of course, “Leave It On the Floor” is far too blatantly homoerotic to fit the Tyler Perry mold. It preaches to a different choir–that is, the cheerfully queer world at its center. In this regard, the movie succeeds. Gaston Jr.’s vibrant choreography, shot on digital video with a style that emphasizes the dancers’ breakneck speed, displays a zest for the ballroom scene that practically makes it a sequel to Livingston’s documentary. The music, which contains lyrics by Gaylord and a score by Beyoncé creative director Kim Burse, makes the vogueing come alive with a vast spectrum of rhythm and emotions. Tracks range from the bittersweet (Brad’s self-deprecating “My Loser’s List”) to outright anger at societal oppression (“This is My Lament”). A scene set at the funeral for a friend of the vogueing crowd, where the gays confront the late man’s conservative family, stands out as a memorably galvanizing moment with legitimate tear-jerking cred.
However, in that scene and throughout the movie, “Leave It On the Floor” is held down by the lack of a cogent screenplay and flimsy production values. Having directed countless TV documentaries and theater, Larry is hardly an amateur, but he lacks the ability to direct individual scenes with the same connectivity he brings to the dance numbers, so the story suffers from exposition problems. Additionally, both the arc and concept are fairly derivative, calling to mind “Rent” and other postmodern Broadway hits with equal amounts of bawdiness and sentimentalism. It’s impossible to ignore the great beats and glamorous attitude, but the moves are ultimately much better than the movie showcasing them.
HOW WILLI T PLAY? “Leave It on the Floor” should gain further attention from gay festivals and likeminded showcases for such work. It also has the potential to obtain cult appeal in ballroom scenes around the country. Given the niche appeal and lo-fi aesthetic, however, its best bet is with a midsize distributor that would allow it to find audiences on VOD.
criticWIRE grade: B-
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