Pretty young performers struggle to get that first break in The Big City in “High Strung Free Dance,” a Broadway music and dance melodrama that, like its predecessor, “High Strung,” has most of its edge rubbed off.
This is a “Fame” version of the gritty reality of “cattle calls,” dead-end jobs to make your rent, big dreams that haven’t turned jaded because they never could in this fairytale version of “My first Broadway show.”
And when I chose “Fame” instead of “A Chorus Line” as an analogy here, I mean the various watered-down TV versions of “Fame,” not Alan Parker’s sex, abortion, “coming out” raw talent finding its way drama.
Barlow (Juliet Doherty) is the dancer who can’t quite get that ballet break and has not gotten that “ballerina’s build” (willowy, not voluptuous) talk from anybody who might discourage her from modern or Broadway dance ambitions.
Charlie (Harry Jarvis) is the dedicated pianist who practices practices practices when he isn’t delivering pastries from the Artistry Deli, like other singers, dancers and musicians. He sees a Steinway in the apartment of an aged recluse, and he’s just got to dip into a little Chopin.
The knowing voice from the other room seems annoyed. But Madame Le Tour (Kika Markham) is the first person to say anything positive to any of the aspiring stars in this “High Strung.”
“Next time you come, play Schubert!”
That’s kind of the vibe, here. “Free Dance,” which takes its title from the new revue planned by the imperious tyro choreographer Zander Raines (Thomas Doherty, no relation), sets up a love triangle. Being super square, the romantic tug of war is between Zander, who picks up on Barlow’s skinny pale chutzpah, and Charlie, who meets her the night Zander’s taxi knocks him off his delivery bike. Two bookend pretty boys and they’re both interested in Barlow, who you just know if going to steal the show.
Charlie ends up as show pianist — like Prince, Zander casts his onstage musicians for their “look” as well as their playing. Barlow ends up being everybody’s second choice when pop starlet-dancer Kayla (Jorgen Makena) plays coy about taking the starring role in “Free Dance.”
Zander wants what’s best for the show, and likes to come on (gently) to his leading ladies. He’s a cross between Bob Fosse and Tommy Tune — rude, aloof, hetersexual in a largely gay world, but fashion show pretty.
Charlie is the more wholesome guy, which in a movie that aims to paint this world beige, is saying something.
So there’s little conflict in the love triangle. When Barlow’s roommate absconds with the rent money and she needs to share, non-competitive fellow members of the chorus Paloma and Keke (Nataly Santiago, Kerrynton Jones) invite her in. Curvy women of color who are very much the energetic, hair-flinging modern Broadway dancer incarnate, they should resent not being the choreographer’s favorite and Barlow’s skinny white dance privilege.
She’s the daughter of Oksana (Jane Seymour), the dance teacher and only carry-over from 2016’s “High Strung.”
It’s a formula dance movie that puts minimal effort into deviating from that formula. But every so often, “Free Dance” threatens to take flight — a dish washer at the Artistry Cafe sings and dances along to his favorite jams (on headphones) on his way to work, Charlie’s first paying gig is with a Zoot Suit revue built around Kid Diamond (Manuel Pacific) and flapper-dancers.
And Zander drags Barlow to Kayla’s club show, featuring her in skin-baring Babylonian gear fronting a backup corps from her harem.
The club scenes are the way club sequences have always been in the movies — too elaborate to ever be anything remotely practical (from a cover-charge perspective).
The dancing is vivacious and arresting, “PG sexy” given the film’s rating.
The music? Think John Tesh.
It’s one thing to make the sex appeal teen friendly. It’s quite another to rub all the edges off pretty much everybody so that there are no real villains and there’s little you could actually call “conflict.”
Whatever “High Strung” was, by “High Strung Free Dance,” the tension’s left the strings, and the movie conjured up to fit that title.
MPAA Rating: PG, some skin, some kissing, one swear word
Cast: Juliet Doherty, Thomas Doherty, Harry Jarvis, Kerrynton Jones, Nataly Santiago, Jorgen Makena, Kika Markham and Jane Seymour
Credits: Directed by Michael Damian , script by Michael Damian and Janeen Damia. An Atlas release, on Netflix
Running time: 1:43