Boogie fever

Dancehall Queen skirts sad struggle of slumming mother

The Jamaican film Dancehall Queen has the flashy, color-drenched look and freakish storyline of a Saturday morning cartoon, but with some sordid subject matter more befitting adult-oriented cable. Set in the slums of Kingston, Jamaica, the film centers around the outrageous goings on at an impoverished neighborhood's version of Studio 54: the African Star. Each night women outfitted in navel-baring gold lame, Day-Glo hot pants and Fruit Stripe wigs arrive at the Star to shake their thing, pulling up like Hanna-Barbera's Banana Splits in souped-up dune buggies, trailing their posse of Solid Gold back-up dancers. Marcia (Audrey Reid) and her two young daughters come from a different — though no less colorful — world of the streets where Marcia sells snacks and soda from a rickety cart and accepts the generosity of a gentleman, "Uncle" Larry (Carl Davis), to foot the bills. "I want to make sure you get the education I never did," Marcia tells her 15-year-old daughter, spewing dialogue that suggests mercilessly underpaid sitcom writers toiling in sweatshop conditions, churning out clichés as fast as they can.
Problem is, corpulent, sweaty, repulsive Mercedes-driving Uncle Larry expects some payback for his donations to the family till in the form of Marcia's daughter. "You have to pick them when they're just ripe," he sneers. When her daughter resists, Marcia tells her "to go along with the program." If it weren't for Larry, how would I manage?" she says.
Add to this sleazy intrigue a vicious murder of a friend who tries to protect Marcia from a rival street vendor and you have what this crude film seems to believe passes for a story. Usually it takes only one director to make something this incompetent, but in this case there are two: Don Letts and Nick Elgood.
Marcia and her brother Junior, who witnessed the murder, are soon contending with a standard-issue movie punk Priest (Paul Campbell), sporting a gold tooth and green contacts, who killed their friend. And in what may or may not be a related development, Marcia transforms from a street vendor into a local dance sensation. Striking up a bargain with a seamstress fairy godmother, Marcia decks out in chain mail, body glitter and a blue wig nightly to shake her own groove thing at the African dancehall.
It is inevitable that a dance contest must — by the laws of such flashy productions — transpire, and soon that pelvis thrusting duel occurs when reigning dancehall queen Olivine challenges this "Mystery Woman" to a rump-shaking showdown. If you can look past a plot line in which a mother pimps her daughter for rent money, then Marcia is a fairly likable woman whose drag queen transformation into a dancing pinball machine has a kind of Cinderella charm. Marcia soon morphs from a negligent mom into a folk hero, and even her daughter can't help but aid in her mother's plucky fight to out-gyrate her dance rival.
Dancehall Queen is a not entirely pleasant reminder of the late '70s/'80s pox of Breakin' and Roller Boogie and other bad translations of esoteric dance fads to the multiplex. Eventually, one sinks to the level of the production and comes to actually appreciate the relative creativity and festive moments in the African Star, where the various rumps and crotches perform better and with more feeling than most of the assembled cast.