DVD Review Of Strictly
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/14/05
I recently watched the first film in the noted Red Curtain Trilogy by Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann, Strictly Ballroom. This 1993 indie classic preceded its more well known and more highly budgeted siblings, Romeo + Juliet, and Moulin Rouge. While I enjoyed the twists to modernize Shakespeare in the former and the non-stop rollercoaster of the latter- and I am notoriously averse to musicals, I believe that Strictly Ballroom is probably the best of the three films, followed by Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet. They are all good films, mind you, and Luhrmann is one of the most innovative filmmakers around, but there is an emotional punch that this film packs that the two later films lack- as they are more style over substance, albeit wonderful style. This is not to argue that Strictly Ballroom is flawless- it’s not, but it is a prime example of a film making use of a ‘classic’ formula, yet avoiding cliché by virtue of its innovation and excellence of execution in all areas.
The plot is an application and satirization of that old sports film cliché of an underdog that is defeated for being true to themselves, battling against a corrupt and/or unbeatable foe, who then teams up with another, even greater underdog, only to triumph at the end. Yet, this is applied to ballroom dancing- a seeming subculture filled with prima donnas and powerbrokers. It starts out almost as a pseudo-documentary in the vein of Spinal Tap, Waiting For Guffman, and that whole troupe of American pranksters, and focuses on the weeks leading up to the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Amateur Championships. The protagonist is a frustrated, spoiled, young dancer named Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio), a dance genius who is a rebel against the competition’s rules, not just to rebel, but to express himself, and the son of a studio dance teaching couple whose glory has passed, and has scandalized the local town with his bending of the rules, much to the chagrin of the ballroom poobah, Barry Fife (Bill Hunter). His initial female dance partner, Liz Holt (Gia Carides), dumps him for a slippery old pro, Ken Railings (John Hannan)- who dumps his partner Pam Short (Kerry Shrimpton) after she breaks both her legs in a horrible accident, so to end up in the hot tub with Liz, and Scott finds that only ugly duckling Fran (Tara Morice), a novice dancer, from a poor immigrant family, believes in him, and offers to be his partner. Need I tell the rest of the tale? Well, yes, because while you will not be surprised by a few lines of exposition, the film succeeds wonderfully by now the predictable is handled- with gentleness and humor that is hard to dislike.
Of course, once Fran loses her glasses and lets down her hair, literally, she’s pretty easy on the eyes, and a very good dancer, to boot. Her clan are a bunch of Latino-Australians and, of course, her widowered father Rico (Antonio Vargas) takes Scott under his wing, and encourages his independence by teaching him the Paso Doble. Fran and Scott fall in love, but Scott then betrays Fran after Barry Fife tells him a ridiculously funny tale about how his father threw away his dance career by being a rebel. Scott decides to play by the rules, and win one for dad, accept the more staid partner, Tina Sparkle (Sonia Kruger)- despite her name, his shrewish mom Shirley (Pat Thomson) has picked out for him, and break Fran’s heart. Of course, it turns out that Barry has rigged the competition and his mild mannered dad Doug (Barry Otto) tells Scott Barry’s tale about him was also a lie, at the last minute. Scott begs Fran’s forgiveness, and the two storm centerstage, and win over the crowd, despite Barry’s attempts to humiliate them, as the film closes on their impassioned kiss.
Yet, the film is also a wonderfully filmed piece. There are two scenes that are just gorgeously composed. Early in the film Scott and Fran are practicing on the roof of the Les Kendall (Peter Whitford) dance studio, where his parents teach, under a Coca-Cola sign, as the sun sets. Alone, the composition is wonderful, but as a version of the Cyndi Lauper hit song Time After Time plays on it is a memorable shot. Then, there is the scene, set near Fran’s parents’ home at a railyard, that could have been right out of Dr. Zhivago- with a rich dark blue sky, a chain link fence, and just the two characters on a barren landscape. Just beautiful. It’s no wonder Luhrmann’s films are all visual marvels.
In a sense this light-hearted comedy reminded me most of the later My Big, Fat Greek Wedding in how it approached odd situations and characters and humanized them by having them funneled through experiences that moviegoers have seen too many times before with people like themselves, and it’s this very dissonance of the unexpected and the expected, as well as great acting and filmmaking, that allow films like those two to succeed, where lesser films and filmmakers fail.
Unfortunately, my DVD version of Strictly Ballroom had not a single extra- no featurette, no commentary, and not even the film’s trailer, yet, when the feeling after watching a film like this hits you you simply do not mind. I recommend this film to all fans of Luhrmann, comedy, musicals, and even to those just wanting a good 90 minutes away from their life’s trouble. I doubt many, save for the most willful of curmudgeons, will be disappointed.
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