After finishing college, Andrew, the main character in Apple TV+’s new movie, Cha Cha Real Smooth, is having a rough go of it: He’s living with his family in suburban New Jersey, working at a fast-food counter, and pining for his girlfriend, who jetted off to Spain after graduation. The one bright spot in all of this comes when Andrew, while accompanying his kid brother to a bar mitzvah, discovers a latent talent for “party starting,” aka getting guests out of their seats and onto the dance floor, which he soon parlays into paying gigs. The only problem is … Andrew (played by the movie’s 25-year-old writer-director, Cooper Raiff) isn’t actually very good at party starting. Not in the universe of the movie—the audience is supposed to think he’s preternaturally gifted at it. But Slate asked real bar and bat mitzvah entertainers to evaluate his skills, and they were not impressed.
“It’s a lot harder than he made it look in the film,” said Anthony DeStefano, whose company, Premium Entertainment in Fairfield, New Jersey, regularly provides DJs, emcees, and other entertainers to bar and bat mitzvahs, sometimes at some of the same venues featured in the movie. Andrew just kind of stumbles into the industry, but “there are conferences and trade shows and seminars that are dedicated to being a better interactor, performer, emcee, and dancer,” DeStefano said. “Some of these people have Broadway experience, or they’ve been training in their field their whole life.” Andrew, meanwhile, is just some guy.
According to Jeff Kutz, a partner in Cleveland’s Rock the House Entertainment Group, a company that does between 100 and 150 bar and bat mitzvahs a year, what Andrew was doing wouldn’t even really be classified as party starting or party motivating in the industry. “Really the only time he was doing what that job responsibility is is in the very first scene when he takes his brother to the very first party,” Kutz said. In that scene, he’s going around to tables and introducing himself, asking guests what songs would get them dancing. But in other scenes, what Andrew was doing was more like DJing, or maybe emceeing … or maybe a little bit of all three?
“Your three main positions for a bar and bat mitzvah are going to be your emcee, DJ, and party motivators,” Kutz said. In the movie, “they kind of took all the jobs into one. He was on the microphone. He was running things. The party motivators are meant to be assistants to the emcee and the DJ. They’re there to interact with the kids, but they’re not the ones playing the music.”
Jason Zaplin, aka DJ Zap, agreed that it often seemed like Andrew was just winging it. “We’re more structured,” he said. “If I show up to a bar mitzvah, I need to know when the candle-lighting is, I need to know when the hora is, I need to do introductions.” The movie spends comparatively little time spotlighting all of the Jewish traditions that take up a significant portion of most bar and bat mitzvahs.
Kutz said that bar and bat mitzvahs tend to be planned 12 to 36 months in advance (they must really be on top of things in Cleveland), so it seemed unrealistic that Andrew would impress some parents at an event and be hired to do another one the very next weekend. Kutz observed that the parties Andrew was working had beautiful décor and lighting—would events of that caliber really hire some guy with a Bluetooth speaker and little experience?
Importantly, Andrew also broke a few cardinal rules, the bat mitzvah professionals pointed out. “The thing that really got me was that he was drinking,” Kutz said—a major no-no. (The movie does show that the local parents similarly disapprove of this behavior.) Andrew was also flirting on the job, developing a crush on a mother he saw at several of his gigs (Dakota Johnson’s Domino). “Hitting on one of the moms and having this potential relationship definitely made me wonder, ooh, do I need to start joking with our clients, after they see this movie, ‘Don’t worry, our staff does not drink from the bar. And don’t worry’—I’m talking to Dad—‘they’re not going to hit on your wife’?”
Perhaps worst of all, at one point Andrew got into a physical altercation with a guest at one party. If he did that while working for DeStefano’s company, “he probably would have been fired immediately,” DeStefano said.
As for whether fights like that ever break out at bat mitzvahs in the real world, Zaplin’s been lucky enough to avoid it, he said: “I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve been knocked out, punched, or a parent gets punched.” Kutz also hasn’t experienced it at a bar mitzvah. “I cannot recall where there’s been a physical fight at a bar or bat mitzvah before,” he said. “We’ve seen some altercations at weddings, but at a bar and bat mitzvah, no.” DeStefano had seen the most combat. “Unfortunately, especially in situations when there’s possibly alcohol involved, we’ve seen it all,” he said. “There are unnecessary, unfortunate situations that might develop between the adults. We’ve seen situations develop amongst the kids.”
Unlike the rare fistfight, guests crushing on party entertainers is extremely common at these events, and not necessarily a huge problem. “We have some extraordinarily talented people on our staff here, and that talent is recognized far and wide at the events,” DeStefano said judiciously. “It’s not uncommon for a guest to develop a little crush on one of our staff members. The trick, though, is handling that with professionalism.”
“I’ve been definitely hit on at parties while I’m emceeing,” Zaplin said. When it happens, he said he has a sort of script he reverts to: “ ‘We’re here to work a party.’ That’s basically what I say. ‘Enjoy your time at Samantha’s bat mitzvah.’ And we pack up and go home. I stay professional on the job.” If any (adult) guests should happen to slide into his DMs after the event, however, he said, that’s fair game.
Still, once they set aside the booze, the romantic messiness, and the punches thrown, everyone I spoke to agreed that Andrew wasn’t all bad. “I loved his energy,” Zaplin said. “He was great with kids.”
“He is a good, approachable person, and that is something that we look for when we hire staff members,” Kutz said. But “from his personality, I would train him as an emcee, based off of what I saw, not as a dancer.”
Kutz said that dancers tend to have more flair and showmanship, and they also don’t dress in boring duds or have messy beards, both of which Andrew did. Zaplin said that he tries to dress in a way that will impress kids. “I wear cool sneakers to parties. I wear Yeezys, I wear LeBron James kicks.”
Both Kutz and DeStefano even said they’d encountered guests at events who reminded them of Andrew at that first party. “We have seen some standout guests at events, where they’re kind of the de facto party starters in either their friend group or their family, and then we see what a great job they do interacting with guests,” DeStefano said. “By the next summer they have a job with us sometimes. We can certainly recognize talent when we see it.” The difference is, then they’re working for an established company, not just showing up with a laptop and a speaker, like Andrew was.
There were a few more stray things that struck the party pros as strange. “One other thing that I thought was a little odd was that all the parents were there escorting their children, instead of dropping them off at an event,” DeStefano said. Good point—it would be expensive for every child to bring along a chaperone! Kutz said he was expecting to hear some familiar music, but instead, “I didn’t recognize any of those songs that were in the movie.”
DeStefano recognized at least one, though. Even if the movie played fast and loose with other details, it got at least one important thing right: “People still do the ‘Cha Cha Slide.’ ”