A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 123 – Strictly Ballroom

Strictly Ballroom – July 1st, 2010

We do own a lot of dance movies. Not that I’d really put this alongside Save the Last Dance really, though there are some similarities, but it’s a very different creature. Maybe when I review Save the Last Dance I’ll play compare and contrast. Anyhow, this movie stands out not just because it’s Australian and directed by Baz Luhrmann, but because of the style of the movie and the style of the dancing. It’s not quite parody, but not quite serious. It’s Latin ballroom, with twists that are half the point of the plot.

There’s a bit at the beginning where the main character’s mother is being interviewed by someone, crying and worrying that she’s done something wrong, alluding to a dancing career down the toilet and what a waste it was. As we find out soon, said career is that of her son, Scott Hastings. An up and coming star of the Australian Dance Federation, Scott’s been making up his own steps and getting in trouble with the judges. There’s another interview segment, Scott is identified in a freeze frame with text, we get an interview segment with Fran, a student at Scott’s mother’s studio, and it’s set up to be this sort of quasi-Spinal Tap feel. But that doesn’t stick. In fact, aside from a cut-away to a traffic accident and some flashbacks near the end, the rest of the movie is done in a far more straightforward fashion.

The story follows Scott, who wants to break free of the restrictive rules of the ADF; Fran, a beginner who plays the ugly duckling role, eventually partnering with Scott when he alienates his regular partner with his experimentation; and Scott’s family and the little circle of competitive ballroom dancers and judges. Scott’s been training for the big competition, the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix, since he was six. Fran’s only been dancing for two years and mostly does the tidying up around the studio. Now, there are some predictable turns here. You know that when the ugly duckling character starts to dance with the dashing young man, she’ll eventually turn beautiful (oh hey, you don’t need those thick glasses to see, right? oh my god! without glasses you’re breathtaking!) and they’ll dance together and fall in love. This is not a spoiler. It’s a trope. There’ll be bumps along the way, and other women who are more “traditionally” beautiful, and there’ll be tears and assumptions and all that. And then in the end there’s the climactic dance scene and of course they belong together! Bravo!

I swear, I’m not actually criticizing the movie. Sure, it follows a pretty well-traveled path in regards to Scott and Fran. And sure, I find the whole glasses = ugly thing annoying (somehow her skin clears up as she dances too – someone patent that as an acne cure!) but for one, there are plenty of new steps tossed in with the old and a good dash of humor. And for two, it’s done so very well. Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with a plot you know already if it’s told well. This movie tosses in some history with Scott’s mother and father and the head of the ADF (played by Bill Hunter in a decidedly less affable role than that of Bob in The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert). It’s got the flashbacks to the 1967 Grand Prix. And it’s got the immensely over-the-top ballroom.

Except, okay, everything I know about ballroom I know from a few clips of professional competitions on PBS before my parents changed the channel (they’re not fans) and from So You Think You Can Dance. I’m serious. So while the costumes seem, well, over the top? I seem to recall the dresses being, well, big. And what little I know about American competitive ballroom is enormous in comparison to knowing even if there’s much difference between American and Australian rules. So for all I know, this could very well be a Spinal Tap situation, where it’s a parody that actually manages to get many things spot on.

But really, the focal point of the movie is the dancing. Not only do we get the ballroom in the competitions and the practices, but then there’s Scott and Fran’s dancing. And we get a lot of Scott and Fran. That’s fantastic, because they’re a hell of a lot of fun to watch. They start out experimenting, and are instantly more interesting than the students in Scott’s mother’s studio since they seem invested in the dancing, not in the competing. It only gets better once Scott meets Fran’s family and really gets passionate about it, not just invested. The movie is about loving dance and doing it because you feel it and can’t not do it. I almost wish the movie had kept up the whole mockumentary thing it had to start, but then I don’t think it would have worked as well at the end. So, a little uneven, but that doesn’t stop it from being wonderful.

July 1, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Strictly Ballroom

July 1, 2010

Strictly Ballroom

It’s been a long time since I last saw this Baz Luhrmann piece of fluff. Several years at least. What’s odd, watching it again tonight, is how instantly I feel as though I’m coming back to an old familiar friend. This movie isn’t like Spaceballs or Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I haven’t watched it so many times that I have the whole thing memorised. Still, it’s such a charming and simple story, and told with such flare and panache, that seeing it again is a load of fun.

Strictly Ballroom is the story of Scott Hastings, an amateur ballroom dance competitor who’s on his way to the Pan Pacific Grand Prix. Everybody knows it’s his year to win. Especially his demanding mother Shirley and his instructor Liz. The problem is that Scott is no longer interested in dancing the stilted, carefully prescribed steps of competition dance. He wants to dance his own moves. Much to the chagrin of his partner, his mother, everybody in the dance circuit and most especially League President Barry Fife.

From there on its a predictable and delightful dance. His partner dumps him because he insists on using his new steps. He starts to secretly dance with pretty-ugly girl Fran, who has been dancing by her lonesome at Liz’s studio. Scott meets Fran’s disapproving father. Ultimately he has to decide which is more important to him: winning the competition or dancing from his heart.

But all that’s not important. It’s not the story that drives the movie. It’s all about Baz Luhrmann and his directorial style. From the tone of parody established at the very beginning of the movie with close up shots of the chief villains using wide angle lenses to make them appear all distorted to the exiting ending set to the strains of Love is in the Air. Then there are the lengthy dancing montages – Scott and Fran dancing on the studio roof and the two of them dancing the night away with Fran’s father and grandmother. There’s a great flashback that is told in a sort of interpretive dance segment with voice over.

It’s also a very tightly edited film. There’s all the dancing of course, which must have been miles of footage to wrangle. But there is also the deft way the montages are put together, and the way the editing is used almost as a character in the movie to deliver punchlines. Frequently a scene or character will be introduced by a bit of dialog that leads directly to the next bit. They use that same gag at least three times in the film, and it’s good for a quick laugh every time.

They must have had some interesting camera rigs as well. One of the shots used over and over to get into the dancer’s head is a close up of their face as they whirl about the dance floor. I’m guessing they had some kind of whirling turntable that the actors could pose on with the camera right up in front of them, because no steadycam operator could keep up such a smooth shot of a moving person.

I find it odd, in a movie that is all about dancing, that IMDB doesn’t have the credit for the film’s choreographer John “Cha Cha” O’Connell. I’m not a dancer so I can’t speak to how good the dancing is from a technical standpoint, but I can say that the performances are fantastic. It’s easy to believe that these characters are caught up in the music and have been taken over by the dancing. It helps that Baz lets the music have some character as well. The stodgy and scripted dancing is introduced using a particularly slow and grinding rendition of the Blue Danube, which is contrasted to Fran and Scott dancing later on to Cindi Lauper’s Time After Time.

In general the movie very clearly has a theme of youthful exuberance triumphing over conservative stonewalling. And with such wonderful directing, choreography, and dancing you can’t help but be swept up in it all. Not a deep movie, but a satisfyingly familiar one.

July 1, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | 2 Comments