Lauryn Kirk (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a booty-shaking blue collar gal from Glenwood, Indiana who wants to make it to the Chicago School of Dance. Unfortunately she flunks her audition. Lauryn’s big brother Joel (John Reardon), skeptical about her dreams, wants her back doing the books at their late parents’ auto-shop. But Lauryn finds a friend in waitress and part-time dancer Dana (Tessa Thompson) who gets her an accounting job at a glitzy nightclub called Ruby’s where an array of sexy dancers shake their stuff onstage every night. All that saucy stuff is not for Lauryn though. She is more of a hoodie-wearing, hip-hop, urban tomboy kind of girl. One night when Dana is unable to make it onstage, nice guy DJ Russ (Riley Smith) persuades Lauryn to take the spotlight. After a rocky start, her pop-and-lock moves go down a storm. A star is born, much to the annoyance of reigning dance diva Carmen (Julissa Bermudez). Over time Lauryn grows in confidence, finds romance with Russ and struggles to overcome her brother’s cynicism whilst preparing to take another shot at that audition.
These days you’re more likely to find Mary Elizabeth Winstead battling aliens, vampires or evil ex-boyfriends as the thinking man’s Milla Jovovich (not that we don’t love Milla too) but only a few years before she was hip-swivelling dance goddess Lauryn Kirk in Make It Happen. With a title possibly drawn from a line in Irene Cara’s theme song for seminal (for some anyway) dance film Flashdance (1983) (“Let your passion, make it happen!”), Make It Happen was co-written by Duane Adler, co-creator of the phenomenally successful Step Up (2006) and, as unlikely as it sounds, boasts an even flimsier plot. While it deserves some credit for at least attempting to address the hardships faced by professional dancers, detailing the hours of hard graft, blood, sweat, tears and broken dreams lurking beneath the glitzy veneer, the film recycles every clichéd motif from every dance film since the dawn of Broadway going right back to 42nd Street (1933).
One could make a case that dance films are really the female equivalent of boxing movies: a plucky go-getter gets knocked down in the opening act, trains hard in a lively musical montage, then punches above her weight for a second shot at success. The film’s one, solitary idea is that gutsy Lauren needs to unearth her inner sexpot in order to, yes, make it happen, and succeed as a professional dancer. Adler and co-writer Nicole Avril dress up this trite message with a lot of poncy profundities whilst the script throws a couple of tepid subplots into the mix including one about Dana’s pregnancy that went AWOL in the final cut and resurfaced as a deleted scene on the region 1 DVD. Ultimately Make It Happen proves more involving on a visual level than a dramatic one. The film drew a lot of flak for playing like an extended music video although veteran pop promo director Darren Grant was admirably upfront about this being his intention and a similar criticism could be levelled at some vintage Busby Berkley musicals, to say nothing of Flashdance.
Über-charismatic Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who prior to this had been dancing since the age of four, grounds the film with an honest, open-hearted performance along with some seriously slinky moves. Her often astonishingly limber and sexy routines are the highpoint of the movie, from the saucy umbrella-twirling routine (sultry co-star Julissa Bermudez also steams up the screen), a delightfully cheesy sequence where she grooves in her parents garage to Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It”, but especially her showstopping striptease out of a sparkly suit. Working with cinematographer David Claessen and choreographer Tracey Phillips, Grant crafts some snappy, sensual set-pieces that leave Make It Happen something of a guilty pleasure.