To dance is a hard thing. I can’t dance.
— Meagan Goode, “Serve It Up”
There’s such a family unit about it and I think that created an awesome vibe on the set.
— Wade Robson, “Serve It Up”
“It was really interesting to be able to capture some of the acting, to go along with the dancing,” says director Chris Stokes. This during one of his two commentary tracks for the You Got Served Special Edition DVD, one focused on dancing, the other on something else, perhaps acting. Allowing that he was inclined to use music video directing techniques, as this is his immediate background, aside from managing B2K (who star in the film with Marques Houston), Stokes extols the effectiveness of shooting with five cameras, including the “low-wides” and the techno-cranes. His partners on the “Dance Track” commentary (including producer Billy Pollina, choreographer Dave Scott, actors Omari Grandberry, Marques Houston, and Meagan Goode eating pizza, as well some dancers, like b-boy Ivan Flipz Velez) all agree: the movie is “intense.”
Just so: “Whoo hoo!” they cry in unison as they watch dance numbers that are truly explosive, shot to showcase full bodies, not just fast edits on beat. Though Stokes describes the concept (in a making-of documentary, Serve It Up) as “Let’s put West Side Story with Breakin’,” the result is less inspired than such a brainstorm might sound.
You Got Served pits the mostly-good kids dance crew (headed up by Elgin [Marques Houston] and his buddy David [Grandberry]) against the bad: spiky-haired white boy Wade (Christopher Jones) and other white boy Max (Robert Hoffman), soon joined by Sonny (Jerome Jones), who betrays El. (The fact that El and David also run drugs or money for a local kingpin doesn’t taint their moral standing, as, apparently, it’s just what you gotta do in the ghetto). The teams compete for big money and fame, as well as a briefly disrupted friendship, when David and El (played by real life brothers Marques and Omarion, have a falling out).
While the plot is surely rote, the dance scenes (which comprise much of the film’s 93-minute running time) are frequently tremendous — exhilarating and fun. Designed by the now-defunct B2K’s usual choreographer Scott, the numbers pull vibrantly from b-boy, mime, ballet, modern dance, pop, cheerleading, and hiphop traditions. To set them off, the battles are presided over by local sage Mr. Rad (Steve Harvey), the father figure who means to school the boys (“We settle it on the floor like men!”). (At first, says Harvey in the making-of documentary, “Serve It Up,” “We had a little difference of opinion about the role”; he agreed to do it when the makers agreed to make the role “more positive.”)
The basic set-up — dance intertwined with bits of melodrama — recalls many other musicals, of course, as do the silly dialogue (“This crew tried to chump my crew today!”, “Sonny sold us out!”, or even, “You suckers got served!”) and cloying storyline (amid the dancing, tension between two best friends, and a budding romance, a wholly predictable death-of-an-innocent leads to reconciliation). The primary tension arises between David and El, longtime best friends and dance crewmates (other mates include the disaffected B2K guys Vick [Raz-B], Rashaan [Lil’ Fizz], and Rico [J-Boog]). The two primaries fall out over a two-part contrivance: David falls for El’s medical-school-bound sister, Liyah (Jennifer Freeman), and because of this distraction, doesn’t help his boy El with a one-last-time “delivery” for the evil huffy-puffy gangster Emerald (Michael “Bear” Taliferro).
During one run for Emerald, El is jumped in a crackhouse hallway, where he suffers his beatdown in arty silhouette while David finishes dessert with lovely Liyah. So then it’s on. David rushes to the hospital and doesn’t quite express his guilt about what’s happened to El, while Liyah tries to convince her brother to ease up on the hating, all to no avail. Even the occasional appearance of Meagan Good, as Liyah’s best friend Beautifull (“with two Ls,” she likes to coo), doesn’t soften up El’s stubborn resolve. (As they describe their participation, the kids tend to rely on clichés (and why wouldn’t they? they’re kids). Marques Houston says, “I have a passion for both acting and singing, but when you singing, you could express yourself through music, it’s a lot easier because you could just be you, you go on stage and perform. But with acting, you have to be somebody else.”)
Determined to carry on despite their trumped-up trauma, each boy puts together a crew to dance off for a $5,000 prize from MTV and a chance to perform in a Lil’ Kim video. This means that the final showdown will be a major performance, hosted by La La Vasquez and wunderkind choreographer Wade Robson. It also means that Kim plays herself at the showdown (emceed by Wade Robson himself), giddily inviting the final two crews to battle “street style”: “You know how I like it baby,” she declares, “Straight hood.”
Amid this superficial plotty mess, the movie also works as a strangely mesmerizing gloss on the nasty intricacies of the music business. Specifically, its tangled production pedigree says something — precisely what is unclear — about the current difficulties of B2K (The Boys of the New Millennium). For one thing, Stokes (cousin to Raz-B) also happens to manage IMx, formerly Immature, the group that launched Marques Houston’s solo career. The tumult of the breakup was intense (like the dance scenes, I suppose) at the time of the film’s release, though it has since dissipated in the wake of more recent pop-cultural scandals (MJ, number one). This makes the film’s frankly weak representation of at least one source of tension — David/Omarion getting all the attention — something like the proverbial car wreck, simultaneously hard to see and hard to turn away from. At least the dance scenes supply their own, more potent, mini-dramas, so the rest of it becomes less salient.