It’s a bizarre, bright and unabashedly sincere modern cult classic about a dance student who teams up with a rebellious violinist to rock New York City at the intersection where popping, locking and string instrumentation collide. Find another movie where an impromptu fiddle feud breaks out in the midst of a snooty party, where all the working-class servers suddenly break out into a perfectly choreographed routine that culminates in an awkward flying kick into a platter full of champagne flutes. You’ll be looking for a long, long time, mark my words.
So needless to say, the bar was set very high for the new sequel, “High Strung Free Dance.” The follow-up introduces a mostly new cast of characters but once again tells the story of an ambitious young dancer who romances a talented musician, culminating in a performance so superlatively overblown that it’s hard to tell if it’s brilliant or just plain camp.
“High Strung Free Dance” stars Juliet Doherty as Barlow, a telemarketer who dreams of superstardom on the stage. She’s just auditioned for a brand new show by an audacious choreography wunderkind named, wonderfully, Zander Raines (Thomas Doherty, “Descendants 3”). And although it takes some low-key chicanery, Barlow earns herself both a role in the chorus and a ride home from Zander himself.
Meanwhile, Harry Jarvis stars as Charlie, a delivery boy who dreams of superstardom behind the keys of a piano. He just accidentally befriended a reclusive, arthritic former virtuoso and was on his way to a much-needed gig when Barlow and Zander literally run into him with their car. To make amends they drive him to work, which just happens to be in an exclusive flapper bar where he drops his sheet music and makes up the world’s most perfect toe-tapping music on the fly.
Charlie parlays this chance encounter into an audition for Free Dance, which by sheer coincidence desperately needs a pianist, but Zander gives him only 16 bars to impress him. Sure enough, Charlie is so unbelievably talented that Zander not only hires him on the spot but also makes him the centerpiece of the show. And since the music superstar who Zander originally hired to play the lead has decided to back out, Zander gives Barlow the gig.
Lots of movies are contrived, but “High Strung Free Dance” turns coincidence into a breathless art form. Barlow loses her apartment and immediately finds one with her new backup dancer brethren. Charlie learns about the art of prepared piano a day before it turns out to be exactly what Zander needs. And of course, no sooner does Charlie join the show than Zander make the moves on Barlow in a glistening, shirtless dance routine, throwing the entire movie into a welcome love triangle.
“High Strung Free Dance” doesn’t take place in a recognizable reality. Cinematographer Viorel Sergovici is a graduate of the Hallmark Christmas school of filmmaking and has been responsible photographing more than one American woman accidentally falling in love with a prince from an obscure European country. The glossy fakeness of the “High Strung” movies is a signal to the audience that every single thing about these stories will stand in abject defiance of reality, and it’s best just to accept them at face value.
And if you do, you’ll be rewarded with a decadently cheesy, slippery slick romance with exciting choreography and outlandish piano performances. The climax of “High Strung Free Dance” is a nuclear bomb of artistic hubris, with Charlie playing a tortured artist whose inner turmoil is personified by Barlow’s muse.
Harry Jarvis’ loose, billowy shirt flaps in the wind as strobes flash across his face, a chandelier shoots into the ceiling, his broken piano self-regenerates and sheet music sprays through the air. It’s the most deliriously melodramatic final performance since John Travolta cavorted through “Satan’s Alley” at the end of “Staying Alive.” And whether you love it earnestly or just can’t stop giggling, that’s one hell of a selling point.
Like its predecessor, “High Strung Free Dance” seems destined to become a cult classic. It’s absolutely ridiculous yet 100% sincere about its stupid storyline, simplistic characters and outlandish performances. That storyline, though stupid, works. Those characters, though simplistic, are lovable. And those performances work because they are outlandish. Michael Damian’s film has no nutritional value, but that’s by design: It’s a flaky dessert for the mind, and it’s irresistibly decadent.