A radically different approach just might save the genre. The no-frills, no-star, no-budget African-American musical, "Leave It On the Floor," which had its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival over the weekend, demonstrates the possibilities. It actually takes some chances.
Most recent movie musicals that succeeded, including "Chicago" and "Dreamgirls," incorporated most of their songs as production numbers performed on stage, so they didn't challenge audiences' preference for realism. But in "Floor," the characters burst into song on the subway or in convenience stores, and the performers are so dynamic that we buy into an ancient musical convention that has fallen out of fashion.
The film doesn't have huge box office potential, but it could develop cult status and find a niche audience.
The script by Glenn Gaylord is an uneven, sometimes threadbare affair, but it does take off from a core of truth: the homophobia within the African-American community. At the start of the film, Brad (Ephraim Sykes) is kicked out by his mother when she discovers that he's gay. He ends up being adopted by a group of drag queens who compete in monthly balls held at downtown L.A. dance clubs. A similar milieu inspired the documentary "Paris Is Burning" a couple of decades ago, and director Sheldon Larry has been tantalized by the idea of making a fiction film on the subject ever since seeing that earlier film.
It's too bad that Larry and Gaylord hew to formulaic storytelling, but the script has never been the most important element in a musical. The key is song and dance, and here "Floor" delivers. The songs by Kimberly Burse (music director for Beyonce and other performers) run the gamut from rap to ballads, and a few of them -- including a sly homage to Justin Timberlake called "Justin's Gonna Call" -- are genuinely rousing. The choreography by Frank Gatson Jr. is equally ebullient.
Characterizations are thin, but the gifted actors help to put the roles across. Sykes has a thrilling voice and an unmistakable charisma. Miss Barbie-Q, playing the den mother of the ragtag group, also sings excitingly and emerges as a force of nature. Andre Myers and Phillip Evelyn as the rivals for Brad's affections both strike sparks with the hero.
Some of the plotting is primitive. A sudden car crash seems convenient rather than convincing, but the funeral scene that follows -- a musical duel between the dead boy's family members and his adopted drag community -- is one of the strongest in the film because it finds the humanity in both contingents.
Larry's direction is sometimes clumsy but always energetic, and the production team makes good use of the gritty locations. The filmmakers' enthusiasm for the musical genre proves to be contagious. This movie may not win awards, but it's a good-hearted joyride.