As a performer, Michael Flatley is the kind of showman that has no concept of subtlety. His inexplicably hyper-popular Lord of the Dance show heaps pyrotechnics on more pyrotechnics, boasting aircraft carrier-quality lighting rigs, legions of scantily clad dancers wearing very expensive Mardi Gras-quality clothing, and one of the most muddled and bombastic pseudo-mythological plots this side of Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster Cycle.” Flatley’s act is so over the top it’s impossible to know if he’s being serious or not.
So when director Marcus Viner decided to film Flatley’s triumphant return to Dublin, the only thing that was sure from the start was that the project would either fail or succeed spectacularly. Lord of the Dance 3D is the Showgirls of concert documentaries; the unhealthy levels of kitsch in the film are stratospheric. There’s on-stage fireworks, tight-fitting clothes, hundred of blinking lights, asterisks that shoot from those lights out at the moviegoing audience, and a dance-off where Flatley fights an evil guy wearing a spike helmet. And the whole event—because surely we are no longer within the realm of the musical as we know it—unironically uses “Simple Gifts” as its main leitmotif. Flatley’s explosive bad taste is jaw-dropping and it will not be denied its place in the annals of ludicrous performance art.
Even ignoring his Lord of the Dance routine, Flatley has to be nuttier than a bedbug if he expects anyone other than his rabid fanbase to buy the working man’s superstar image he projects in the pre-concert footage. Lord of the Dance 3D begins with a cascade of venues that Flatley has sold out, including Madison Square Garden and Radio City Musical Hall (though I’m almost positive that “Film Forum” also flashes across the screen so perhaps there’s more than one Film Forum out there?). Flatley tells us how hard he’s worked to realize his dream, though what dream he’s referring to is up to interpretation as he never explicitly spells it out. Then he says that all the thousands of dollars that goes into the Lord of the Dance show is not spent on “nonsense.” This also is difficult to parse since he also mentions that that money is used to pay for the flashing lights and stage equipment that makes his show a uniquely Irish mash-up between ballet and the WWF.
Finally, Flatley tries and fails to show that he’s humble by saying that “every great army has to have a great general and every great general has to have a great army.” Amid all these clichés and declarations of false modesty, one has to wonder what planet Flatley’s from to think that a man that calls himself the “Lord of the Dance,” a rank that he proudly advertises during the show using a sequin-studded title belt, could ever look or sound like a self-effacing man that didn’t listen to the “naysayers,” but rather worked hard and rose to the top. Who does Flatley think he is…Justin Bieber?
Then the show comes on. And it’s almost certainly the muddled, blunt, sex-fueled thing you’ll ever see paraded around under the banner of Celtic pride. It’s impossible to follow unless you actually know the story that Flatley is basing his show around. Flatley first courts one woman, a blonde, presumably a symbol of purity during his passion play. At one point in the show, she and her attendant dancers strip down to their black brassieres and matching panties for a tap number. So there’s a duality thing going, that’s not too hard to follow, but then that woman’s darker half enters. This black-haired woman is a dancer whose appearance is accompanied by images of a woman eating a peach projected across the seven pylons of LED lights that display loaded images throughout the show. This dark-haired woman is sultry and wears tighter clothing than her blond counterpart. A sexy conflict between her and the blonde ensues but is never directly resolved.
What that inconclusive confrontation is supposed to project about Irish culture or dance is a mystery. Like the show itself, Lord of the Dance 3D is so bombastic that it transcends coherent meaning and becomes an epic struggle of high falutin archetypes. Flatley’s character apparently doesn’t need to fight for a woman because, like Tony Manero, all that matters to him is his right to be the best dancer around. Thus Lord of the Dance 3D only climaxes after he conquers a fascistic opponent that tries to steal Flatley’s title belt away from him. Flatley’s rival is dressed in a skull mask, shoulder pads, and a German helmet with a single spike in the center and smaller spikes running along it in a Mohawk pattern. At first, he and Flatley face off accompanied by their respective line dancers. Flatley’s guys wear form-fitting black-and-white v-neck tops and black berets. His rival’s men all have skull masks and black army uniforms. They dance at each other but neither side wins until the film devolves into a mano-a-mano dance scene between Flatley and the helmet-wearing dancer and the pair—spoiler!—exchanges pantomimed blows until Flatley triumphs.
Which again leads me to ask: Is Flatley an alien whose main charm is his ability to tap dance and make plumes of smoke burst from an arena stage while hooded druids brandishing torches and a harlequin clown encircle him and the word “Dance” appears behind him on pylons of LED lights? Evidently, but is he even aware of how over the top this all is? What does all of this kitsch even accomplish? Is it a statement of some kind? The man’s act is crude, proud, very popular, and yet flabbergastingly unreadable. Surely, by the point in the show where an image of a flying saucer appears on the stage’s light pylons, one has to wonder if any of what we’re watching ever made sense. Either way, Flatley’s film is sure to be the cinematic equivalent of the Spider-Man musical: You won’t believe what you’ve read about it until you’ve actually experienced it for yourself.