Since Maggie is apparently a limited release, and did not open here this weekend, I decided to go back and review a movie that I reference in dance class all the time.
Chances are you are very familiar with Baz Luhrmann – even if you don’t know it. He’s an Australian director who was born in New South Wales in 1962. His parents did Ballroom Dancing competitions and got him started in ballroom very early. Once he started writing and directing movies, he carried the passion for ballroom and theatricality into the movies. His first movie was Strictly Ballroom in 1992. The two follow-up pieces (both made with noticeably more money) were Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge! (2001). Together, these three movies are called the Red Curtain Trilogy, which Luhrmann describes as a “theatricalized cinematic” form – a sort of half play/half movie item. He was then going to do a trilogy of historical epics with Alexander the Great being the first, however, that got dropped after Oliver Stone’s Alexander came out and bombed. He did do the historical epic Australia (2008), a lot of short films, and The Great Gastby (2013).
I enjoy all of the Red Curtain Trilogy, but Strictly Ballroom has always been my favorite. I have always loved watching ballroom dance, and this movie has a lot to do with why the Paso Doble is my favorite ballroom style. Here's one of the best I have ever seen, choreographed by Derek Hough. Essentially, the Paso is an aggressive, flamenco, Spanish influenced style where the man represents a matador, and the woman his cape.
The movie Strictly Ballroom was released in 1992, and is itself is based on a play set up by Luhrmann and fellow students at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts in Sydney. The play was eventually seen by Ted Albert (an Australian music executive) who loved it so much he helped create the film production company M&A Productions and made an offer to Luhrmann to turn the play into a movie.
The story focuses on young Scott Hastings – a rising star in the Australian Ballroom circuit. He’s on his way to winning the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix dancing Championship, but in order to win over the conservative judges, you have to keep it very strictly ballroom – old school steps in the classic style. Scott feels himself pushed to keep trying more flashy, modern moves and work them in with the classic steps. If you’re a watcher of Dancing with the Stars – this sounds familiar. Head Judge Len Goodman always wants classical, pure dancing, and some of the pros (I’m looking sideways at you, Mark Balas) like to throw it more modern, contemporary moves.
During a preliminary competition, Scott and his partner Liz are wining, but then Scott breaks out some new moves, and they lose the competition. Liz promptly ditches Scott for the champion Ken Railings as her new partner, nevermind that he’s a drunk. Incidentally, the way this happens is one of the most hilarious things in any movie, ever “Pam Short’s just broke both her legs and I want to dance with you!” Scott then auditions new partners at his parents’ studio with his coach Les, where his mother Shirley teaches ballroom, and his father Doug handles maintenance.
The auditions are going poorly when Scott finally notices Fran, a frumpy beginning dancer at the studio. She starts to show him some Paso Doble steps she learned from her family, and Scott is quickly taken by the flamenco flair in her steps. He begins to secretly practice with Fran in the hopes of partnering with her at the Pan-Pacifics to do more modern moves, while continuing to run auditions with everyone else to show that he is looking for a traditional partner.
As the secret rehearsals progress, Fran becomes more and more confident and her inner beauty begins to show through her ‘ugly duckling’ exterior. She brings Scott back to meet her Spanish father and grandmother who apparently spend their time at a gypsy-style camp doing paso doble and flamenco dancing. He sees that the Spanish dance is in her blood and they grow even closer – which throws some romance into the mix – because after all, it’s a romantic comedy.
Scott is eventually blindsided by Barry Fife, the president of the dance Federation, and his toupee, who tells him that his father is such a meek and broken man because he and Scott’s mother lost the Pan-Pacifics due to Doug wanting to do crazy, unorthodox steps. Scott feels guilty and decides to partner with Liz again, since Ken has decided to partner with Tina Sparkles (“Tina Sparkles!”).
Fran is heartbroken, but goes to the competition anyway, to enter in the beginner contest. Scott’s friends overhear Barry promising Ken and Tina that they will win, no matter what. They quickly tell Les, Scott’s coach, and he confronts Barry. Meanwhile, Doug finally tells Scott the truth – that he had always wanted to do the new, unorthodox steps, but that Shirley, Les, and Barry all talked him out of it…and they still lost the competition. After hearing this, Scott realizes he needs to dance his steps with Fran and immediately goes to find her. As they take the floor, Barry cuts their music and disqualifies them, but the audience claps for them so that they can dance anyway. They completely win over the crowd, and kiss as the entire audience starts dancing – finally realizing that it was always about the dance, and not about the competition.
The movie shows the beginnings of what will become Luhrmann’s typical style. It is completely over-the-top and at times feels like a full-frontal assault of visual stimulus. The first time I saw Moulin Rouge in the theatre – the opening number made me nauseous because of the excessive amounts of light, color, and sound. Luhrmann does like it big. The story is silly, and most of the characters are ridiculous, but it’s put together in a really fun way that draws the audience in. In terms of the cast, it’s all Australians. Paul Mercurio is one of the two members actors I remember seeing in other movies. Although, the other movie I saw him in is East of Eden, which was horrible – so maybe that shouldn’t count? The other one is Gia Carides as Liz, she played the sister in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
Overall, the movie is silly and charming, and certainly a fun bit of entertainment. When it was released in 1992 in Australia, it was many awards both there and in the UK. In fact, the show Strictly Come Dancing (which is Dancing with the Stars here) took its name from the movie. Here in the US, it’s more of a cult hit, but chances are if you encounter someone who has seen it – they love it.
9 out of 10 – I really love this movie, and it’s my favorite Baz Luhrmann movie. Probably because it happened before he decided Leonardo diCaprio was his muse. Can you imagine what an Alexander the Great movie with Leo starring directed by Lurhmann would have looked like? Absolutely insane!
Bonus Video 1: Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby – I never saw this, I’m still holding a grudge about having to read this book in school.
Bonus Video 2: Romeo + Juliet – Amazing in that it used the Shakespeare word for word, but a modern setting. And the reason I always refer to that one dude as Benvolio, even though I’m sure that actor has a real name (it’s Dash Mihok).
Bonus Video 3: Moulin Rouge! Just complete visual overstimulation in the best possible way. Plus – singing Ewan McGregor! Downside – singing Nicole Kidman!