Sunday, April 4, 2010

Make It Happen (The Mayhem Project/Weinstein Co., 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a TV-movie on Lifetime called Make It Happen and also the program I recorded just after it, an Austin City Limits episode featuring the band Wilco that turned out to be a rerun that I’d not only recorded but dubbed to CD the last time it was on. Make It Happen was billed as a Lifetime premiere but certainly seemed like something I’d watched before: one commentator compared it to the 2000 theatrical film Coyote Ugly ( also mentions Make It Happen as having had a theatrical release in 2008 — and it’s in a 2.35-1 wide-screen theatrical ratio rather than the 1.33-1 standard TV or 1.78-1 wide-screen TV, which lends credence to the idea that this was shot for theatres), though in that one the heroine was an aspiring songwriter who got a job as a bartender rather than, as here, an aspiring dancer who got a job in a strip club.

I remember an earlier movie I’d seen from Lifetime called Confessions of a Go-Go Girl, which was also about an aspiring performer (an actress rather than a dancer) who got a job in a strip club, and which went through many of the same plot points as this one but was a much more powerful work that got considerably more out of them. Make It Happens begins in a small town in Indiana, where Lauryn Kirk (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) works as the bookkeeper for a garage owned by her brother Joel (John Reardon), who inherited it from their parents — mom died of a lingering illness (presumably cancer, though the script by Duane Adler and Nicole Avril, based on Adler’s so-called “original” story, doesn’t specify) when Lauryn was 10, and their dad croaked of a heart attack after Lauryn returned from a dance session a half-hour too late to save him.

Lauryn has dreamed all her life of becoming a dancer — though she works in a garage instead of a steel mill, the first glimpse we see of her she’s practicing in an attic full of dance equipment and proletarian props that immediately puts us in mind of Flashdance — and she has an audition scheduled for the Chicago School of Music and Dance. She flunks the audition after the supercilious man running it says he’s looking for something “more feminine” — the fact that she’s chosen a bump-and-grind routine to modern-day disco has obviously turned the guy off (though he wasn’t any happier with the previous auditioner, who did ballet) — and he tells her he wants to see something that’s continuously emotional rather than just showing flashes of emotion. Unwilling to give up on her dreams, she decides to stay on in Chicago and is taken in as a roommate by Dana (Tessa Thompson), an African-American woman who works as a bartender at Ruby’s strip club. Dana recommends Lauryn as a bookkeeper, and though she has the usual boring boyfriend from back home Lauryn is instantly attracted to the club’s D.J., Russ (Riley Smith) — who is about a head shorter than John Reardon but otherwise looks almost exactly like him, not surprising since in the establishing scenes in Indiana the bond between Lauryn and Joel has been drawn as so intense and physical it looks like the movie is about to head to Die Walküre territory any moment.

Lauryn practices a dance on the club’s empty stage when she’s taking a break from bookkeeping and thinks the place is otherwise deserted, but Russ spots her and recommends her to the management as potential on-stage talent, and within a few jump cuts she’s being pressed into service à la Ruby Keeler in 42nd Street when one dancer has called in sick and another is late on a night when there are a lot of well-heeled “regulars” in the place. Lauryn becomes a star at the club and she and Russ fall in love — it turns out Russ is a composer (though what he composes is the same neo-disco crap we’ve been hearing all movie) and he once was in a band that had a record deal, only he walked out on it when the “suits” at the record company started telling him how to make music — and things pretty much continue in that vein until, to absolutely no hardened moviegoer’s surprise, Joel walks into Ruby’s one night — having driven up from Indiana to the big bad city to find his sister, and already pissed at her because he checked with the Chicago School of Music and Dance and found she was not enrolled there — and there’s the predictable scene in which he’s shocked, shocked! to find his sister doing primitive dance routines and taking off her clothes for a bunch of … well, normally in movie strip clubs the clientele is a bunch of old horny straight guys, but in this one the men seem to be younger and there are actually a surprising number of women off stage as well as on.

Out of shame as well as a sense of obligation (without her services as a bookkeeper the garage is about to go out of business), Lauryn returns to Indiana and her old job and blows off the promise of a second audition to the Chicago School of Music and Dance (they failed to fill two of their 20 annual slots for new students in the first round) — until Joel has a change of heart and says, “I can’t ask you to give up your dream just to save mine.” Accordingly, she goes back to Chicago, does the audition and nails it — even though her dance routine doesn’t look all that difference from what she performed before (though at least it’s done to Lady Gaga’s song “Just Dance,” by far the best piece of music in the movie and one more indication that the singer/songwriter whose true name is Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta is a much more interesting talent than the common run of “dance music” practitioners, largely because of her ability to write well-structured songs that actually communicate an emotional message instead of just being vehicles for beats).

Though I wasn’t all that impressed by Confessions of a Go-Go Girl either — that tacky exploitation title didn’t help and I wrote that the film had some interesting premises but got “bobbled in the execution” — it’s a far richer film than Make It Happen, mainly because its writers (Jane Morley, source play; Lenore Kletter, script) showed the stripper’s life as itself seductive. Over the course of Confessions, their heroine became more attracted to it and in particular to the power over men she acquired through learning how to manipulate them with her sexuality — a potentially strong and insightful plot point Adler and Avril totally ignored — and the heroine of Confessions goes through the same sequence of a failed audition, a strip-club career, and a second audition that succeeds, and also had the clichéd scene of her family (in Confessions it was her brother and her father and her pre-stripper boyfriend who all caught her at once!) discovering her in performance and being shocked, but its ending was much more moving because it showed her recovering from the wreck she’d made of her life by stripping and using that as the material for the audition piece that finally got her into school to learn the sort of straight-and-narrow performing that was her ambition in the first place.

I guess I was hoping Make It Happen would be an improvement on Confessions of a Go-Go Girl by ducking the stupid clichés and making more of the contrast between the heroine’s two worlds; instead it stuck with the clichés and simply got less out of them, carefully avoiding the potentially dark sides of their story (in Make It Happen we barely meet the strip club owner — in fact, I’m not sure we ever do — and there’s no hint of the drug use real-life women and men who sell their sexuality in this fashion frequently indulge in) and setting itself up as another Flashdance — and that wasn’t the only classic film they rip off; in one sequence Lauryn and two of her colleagues do a dance routine with umbrellas and “rain” (actually sequins dropped from the ceiling, after the filmmakers realized their original idea to use real water would have risked the limbs of the dancers) straight out of Singin’ in the Rain.