Inspired by the “vogueing” sensation featured in the 1990 documentary “Paris Is Burning,” Sheldon Larry’s “Leave It on the Floor” describes a different kind of coming out from most gay features, focusing less on declaring one’s sexuality than on discovering an environment in which outcast identities can flourish. That cultural haven is Los Angeles’ vibrant underground ballroom scene, never before depicted on film, where black men find confidence through fierce — and fiercely competitive — fashion shows. Though the resulting tuner trades heavily in melodramatic cliches, “Floor” excels at capturing its milieu, offering positive, high-energy escapism for LGBT fests and specialty auds.
One could be excused for assuming that ball culture has faded in the two decades since “Paris Is Burning” introduced the Harlem-based drag phenom to the mainstream (a move famously aided by Madonna’s appropriation of the performance style in her “Vogue” musicvideo). As it turns out, however, the tradition is alive and well in more than a dozen major urban areas, including low-income El Monte, Calif., where Larry was so taken with the community that he built a feature-length hip-hop extravaganza around the scene, partnering with writer-lyricist Glenn Gaylord and composer Kimberly Burse to inject the right musical energy into his passion project.
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Without the songs, which include such feisty tracks as “Knock Them Mothaf*kk**s Down” and rags-to-riches anthem “Justin’s Gonna Call,” “Floor” would have amounted to little more than stock after-school fare: Homeless and suicidal after his mother kicks him out for being gay, handsome 22-year-old Brad (accomplished stage dancer Ephraim Sykes) cruises long-haired Carter (Andre Myers, soulful both in and out of drag) in a convenience store. As meet-cutes go, “Floor” serves up a charming, low-class scenario where the two strangers slyly use their mutual attraction to pick one another’s pockets. After realizing he’s been robbed, Brad follows Carter into a nondescript warehouse, where a lively ball is already in session.
Sensing fresh meat, elegant “face” performer Princess (Phillip Evelyn) swoops in and sings “Ballroom Bliss,” while Brad tries to take in the overwhelming scene. Though the music has evolved, the tradition is much the same as it was 20 years earlier: Provocatively costumed drag queens strut the runway in elaborate homemade outfits, competing for bowling trophies, while their butch counterparts compete in “realness” battles, trying to pass as straight schoolboys or executives. The ballroom environment provides as colorful a backdrop as any director could want for a gay love story, and yet, Larry and editor Charles Bornstein dice the footage so finely, auds don’t get a proper chance to take it in until the pic’s third and final ball, alternating fleeting glimpses of fashion, flesh and mad moves by Beyonce choreographer Frank Gatson Jr.
There’s a disappointing by-the-numbers quality to the way Gaylord has structured the dramatic scenes that unfold in the interim, which call attention to the pic’s less-than-pro provenance (Larry’s experience is mostly limited to stage and TV, while his below-the-line team was made up largely of USC students). Working with a fraction of the resources that most musicals command, the film would have done well to embrace the essence of ball culture, letting the seams show in a spirit of high-attitude, heightened imitation. With the exception of house mother Queef Latina (a lip-smacking, finger-snapping Miss Barbie-Q), who delivers nearly all the film’s best lines, the cast seems to be aiming for a tamer, more Disney Channel-friendly performance style.
Since ball competitions are typically divided between different teams, or “houses,” the story’s tender subtext follows Brad’s attempts to find his place in his new surrogate family, the House of Eminence. Larry’s approach is earnest enough that he wants to encourage rather than exploit those who have been kicked out or gay-bashed by relatives and peers. Such politeness hardly suits a story that gets soap-opera sordid in a hurry: Both Carter and Princess have designs on the studly newcomer, who hopes to compete in the striptease-style sexy-walk category, setting up a love triangle full of lying, cheating and unlikely tragedy.
Burse’s music — especially “Floor’s” eponymous battle jam — helps to unify pic’s uneven narrative elements. Though their lips rarely seem to match, most of the cast recorded their own parts in-studio, demonstrating versatility in a wide variety of styles, ranging from gospel to showtunes.