In Image + Nation closing film Leave It on the Floor, Sheldon Larry takes us on a musical tour of L.A.'s ball and voguing scene
Part dance-off, part fashion show, the balls put together by various houses in cities across the United States feature people – male, female and in between – walking on a runway and being judged on their appearance, attitude and vogue dancing skills.
For many, Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning was their first exposure to this flamboyant world. Canadian producer and director Sheldon Larry was one of them. "I was living in New York and directing off-Broadway," he remembers, "and when I saw the film, I immediately saw it as a musical." Alas, Larry’s project remained dormant until six years ago, when he discovered that there was a thriving ball scene in Los Angeles, where he now resides. "I thought, ‘If you’re ever going to do this, you better get going on it!" And so he did, hooking up with writer Glenn Gaylord and spending three years developing the screenplay to what would become Leave It on the Floor.
THE BEYONCÉ CONNECTION
When it came down to finding a composer and a choreographer, Sheldon Larry had the good luck of being able to recruit none other than Beyoncé’s dream team. "Kim Burse has been Beyoncé’s music director for the last 12 years, she’s also working with J. Lo right now and she just did a big show called Black Girls Rock," says the filmmaker. "I got a meeting with her last year, I pitched her the film and she got really excited. She jumped on board and wrote the score in a remarkably short time.
"And then the phone rang and it was choreographer Frank Gatson," Larry goes on. "He said, ‘I heard about your film, I’d love to be involved. I’m Frank Gatson, I don’t know if you know who I am.’ I said, ‘Absolutely!" because he’s done every Beyoncé video, he’s worked with Rihanna, and all the way back with Michael Jackson. He’s deeply appreciative of the ball community because he’s found inspiration and steps there, and he felt this was an opportunity to give back."
Besides those seasoned pros, Sheldon Larry also got help from his students at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, who formed much of his crew. "I went out to them and got their support to make the film. It was also a great teaching opportunity."
IT GETS BETTER
Leave It on the Floor tells the story of Brad (Ephraim Sykes), a young gay man who, after being kicked out by his mother, stumbles upon the L.A. ball scene and finds himself crashing at the House of Eminence, surrounded by fierce and fabulous characters such as Queef Latina (Miss Barbie-Q), Princess Eminence (Phillip Evelyn), Carter (Andre Myers) and Eppie Durall (James Alsop).
While upbeat, colourful, fun, sexy and somewhat campy on the surface, the film is anchored by the painful reality that, as a minority within a minority, these wonderful gay black people hardly always have it easy. "The level of homophobia is higher I think in the African-American community," says Larry. "So these kids are all runaways or throwaways. They find these houses, they connect to them and they really form families; there’s always a house mother and these kids are all sort of sisters and brothers. These houses are places of love and care and respect."
And in that positive environment, these street kids finally get to express how brilliantly creative they can be. Even though the ball scene remains underground and off the grid, its influence on pop culture is undeniable, from Madonna’s David Fincher-directed Vogue video to the oeuvre of Lady Gaga. Considering that and also the success of Glee on TV, Sheldon Larry is hoping that his film might be able to cross over into the mainstream, seducing audiences with all those great song and dance numbers (Ballroom Bliss, Knock Them Mothaf*kk**’s Down, Black Love, the Justin Timberlake-dedicated Justin’s Gonna Call, etc.), and possibly also opening some minds in the process.
So far, as Leave It on the Floor makes its way across the festival circuit, the response has been more than encouraging, at LGBT events like Frameline and Outfest but also at the Toronto, L.A. and Chicago film festivals, among others. "We’ve had lovely success at both gay and straight festivals," says the director. "So I guess we’re a bisexual film!"
Leave It on the Floor
Image + Nation at Concordia’s Hall Theatre