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Everybody cut loose...

With ‘Honey,’ Hollywood dances down a well-traveled path yet again. By Brian Bellmont

Ah, to be a fly on the wall at the pitch meeting for “Honey,” the new make-it-big-as-a-dancer flick starring Jessica Alba.

“Ooh, I know!” one Hollywood suit probably suggested, fiddling with her BlackBerry and nibbling on edamame. “How about a working class girl following her dream to be a dancer?” “Awesome concept,” her boss likely said. “Totally original. Is Jennifer Beals available? Check with her people.”“Yeah, she’s available. But she’s also forty.”“Hmm…You’re right. Could break a hip. Get that kid from ‘Dark Angel’ on the phone. How about this for a slogan? ‘Guts. Determination. Ripped abs.’”

“Perfect, chief. Guaranteed boffo box office. Another smash hit!”Whether that’s how the meeting happened or not, for folks brought up on ’80s stardom-through-pluck-and-determination flicks, the plot to “Honey” will seem as familiar as skinny ties and Flock of Seagulls hairdos.

Dancer and aspiring choreographer Honey Daniels (Alba, looking mighty Beals-ish, by the way), follows her dream while struggling to hold down a bartending job and teaching hip-hop to neighborhood kids. “Her dream. Her terms,” says the tagline. And, if the movie poster is any indication, “her bare midriff” will play a role in the movie’s success as well. Will poor, streetwise Honey make it big as a dancer? Do we even care? Sure, we do! We’ve cared dozens of times before, why not now? “Honey” is a nod to a type of movie that’s as big a part of the Hollywood landscape as plastic surgery and casting couches.

A step-by-step formulaAlba’s abs aside, the real star of the movie is its well-worn formula, a combination that’s worked its mojo on audiences time and time again — with only minor tweaks to differentiate one determined character from another. From the chorus-girl-turned-star in “42nd Street” to the I’m-gonna-learn-how-to-fly-high! students in “Fame,” all these raw-but-talented outsiders need is a chance. And Hollywood’s there to give it to ‘em.

It worked for sports underdogs “Rocky,” “Rudy,” and “The Karate Kid,” and it resonates for singers and dancers even more loudly. Sure, they’re clichés, but what great clichés. Designed to rouse the frustrated little guy or gal in all of us, these movies — when done well — get the crowd cheering, adrenaline pumping and toes a-tappin’ like no other cinematic genre.

It’s simple math: Combine a perky, talented loner, supportive love interest/best friend/teacher, and willingness to work, with a scowling authority figure, important gig and overwhelming odds and you’ve got the silver screen’s Next Big Thing. Of course, the hero has to stumble along the way, scuff his or her talented knees, and take a good hard look at whether they really, really want to achieve their dream — then pick themselves off the floor and shake their groove thing like they’ve never shaken their groove thing before.“Honey” has a rich history to draw from. The only question now is whether the movie will capture audiences’ hearts like “Flashdance” or “Footloose ” — or send them into fits of giggles like “Showgirls” or “Glitter.”

Gotta danceThere are plenty of other “nobody to somebody” movies where the lead characters overcome far bigger obstacles than cutie-pie Ms. Alba. Take the frumpy Fran (Tara Morice) in Aussie director Baz Luhrmann’s pre-”Moulin Rouge!” follow-your-dream, mate, dance movie “Strictly Ballroom.” Now, there’s a character an audience can get behind. Awkward, plain, shy, but with a spunky I’m-gonna-make-it attitude, Fran sweats and bleeds and rehearses all movie long. In the end, she wins her dream hunk, her father’s respect, and the thunderous applause of everyone at the Pan Pacific Grand Prix dance championships. The audience is rooting for her the whole way; she earns everything she gets.

Similar in tone — and payoff — is 2000’s “Billy Elliot.” Try not to cheer as put-upon little Billy kicks, pirouettes and whirls his way out of his depressed English mining town. Exhilarating and heartfelt, with a revelatory performance by then-newcomer Jamie Bell, “Billy Elliot” is everything these movies aspire to be. “I don’t want a childhood,” says 11-year-old Billy. “I want to be a ballet dancer.” And by the end of the movie, we want him to succeed so badly, we’re willing to drive the kid to rehearsal ourselves.

The best of these movies offer an against-all-odds tale of overcoming adversity, and when the twinkle-toed hero wins over a naysaying authority figure, it adds even more emotional heft. In Billy’s case, he must convince his blue-collar dad, who’s far more comfortable with geology than grand jetes. The bigger the obstacles, the bigger the cheers when they get where they’re going. Dance, Billy. Dance!

Hey, remember the ’80s?   Of course, “Honey,” “Billy Elliot” and “Strictly Ballroom” would never have existed if it wasn’t for a trio of by-the-numbers dance flicks that took the 80s by storm: “Dirty Dancing,” “Footloose” and “Flashdance.”       Apparently, nobody puts Baby in a corner, but many folks put “Dirty Dancing” on top of their underdog-makes-good flick list. At a Catskills resort, Jennifer Grey’s sheltered Baby persuades brooding lunkhead Patrick Swayze to teach her how to dance — over the protestations of her doctor daddy (Jerry Orbach). After many montages of watermelon lugging and falling off logs (“Work! Work!”), Swayze’s Johnny Castle molds little Baby into a proper partner, and everybody gets a cardio workout out of the deal. The movie ends with the whole cast having “the time of their lives” and cutting a rug to the strains of Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes. Similarly, in 1984’s “Footloose,” Kevin Bacon transforms an entire dance-free town with his infectious love of rhythm and can’t-get-’em-outta-your-head 80s pop songs. Armed only with a spastic energy, painted-on jeans and a Pat Benatar hairdo, Bacon’s streetwise Ren McCormack teaches residents — including fire-and-brimstone preacher John Lithgow — a thing or two about cutting loose on the dance floor. The movie, and the soundtrack, taught a whole generation of kids how to get jiggy wit it, Bacon-style.“Flashdance” makes use of cinema’s least likely premise — welder by day, exotic dancer by night — but the gonna-make-it! determination of Alex Owens (Beals) as she struggles to get into a prissy ballet academy still rings true. The movie culminates in the genre’s signature audition scene, with Alex leaping, tumbling and flipping her way into admission. (Some might say, in fact, that she took her passion…and made it happen.) Much hay was made that most of the moves weren’t Beals’, but audiences didn’t seem to mind.

“I'm a dancer!” 

What “Flashdance” did for legwarmers and ripped sweatshirts, “Showgirls” did for sequins and bare bods. Believe it or not, both were penned by Joe Eszterhas, once one of the highest-paid writers in Hollywood. But while “Showgirls” dished out plenty of flesh, primarily from former “Saved by the Bell” belle Elizabeth Berkley, and some of the most cringe-inducing dialogue and “acting” in any movie, ever, it offered none of the heart of its predecessors. Even Screech would have likely turned down a role in this stinker.As evidenced by the several Internet drinking games this flick spawned, the genre is full of potential for unintentional hilarity, and “Showgirls” takes full advantage of every overwrought opportunity. “You’re a…stripper. Don’t you get it?” growls one gentleman. “I’m a dancer!” Berkley’s character maintains. Uh, no, Jessie Spano, you are indeed a stripper. And a not very good one at that. The audience actually roots for the character to fail in her quest to become a top Vegas showgirl, if for no other reason than that silly jazz-hands-meets-shadow-puppet hand flourish she’s always doing. At least Berkley’s character had to jump through some tried-and-true hoops, distasteful as they were. In “Glitter,” all Mariah Carey needed to do was sing backup for a vain, no-talent “star,” then simply step into the spotlight when the hack was replaced. Not exactly the come-from-behind tale moviegoers were looking for. The story cut corners, and viewers felt cheated: No journey, no audience satisfaction. (Not to mention the fact that Mariah Carey would probably have a tough time acting her way through “The Mariah Carey Story.” So there’s that.)But “Showgirls” and “Glitter” are rare missteps. As long as “Honey” follows the well-choreographed moves of its cinematic predecessors, it’ll have those Hollywood marketing suits up off their Armani-clad butts and dancing…all the way to the bank. What a feeling, indeed.

Brian Bellmont is a writer in St. Paul, Minn.