In honor of my birthday today *yay me for continuing to live* I am posting a review of a film that I downright love, adore, and cherish. I would review it even if it WEREN'T in the 1001 Movies book, but it just so happens to grace the pages.
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Starring: Paul Mercurio, Tara Morice
You have seen this movie before. If you’re a stereotypical dude, you’ve seen Strictly Ballroom as any and all sports “plucky player/team rises the ranks and defeats the odds” film. If you’re a stereotypical chick, you’ve probably seen Dirty Dancing. And Strictly Ballroom, when you boil it down, IS Dirty Dancing.
But but but… there is so much more to Strictly Ballroom than generalizing the plot structure.
Which makes me say NOW that unless you’ve seen Strictly Ballroom, you have no idea what this movie is all about.
In terms of story, you’ve probably figured out the pattern by now. Scott Hastings (Mercurio) is a young ballroom dancer destined for greatness in the Australian Dance Federation, but an insistence on branching out and dancing HIS ORIGINAL MOVES *shock, horror!* find him constantly disqualified and in want of a partner. Enter frumpy, frizzy, bespectacled Fran (Morice), a beginner who agrees to dance original moves with Scott. CAN HE EVER TRAIN HER IN TIME TO COMPETE AT THE BIG CHAMPIONSHIP THREE WEEKS FROM NOW?!?!?
If this had been an American movie, a Hollywood movie, or a film directed by anyone other than Baz Luhrmann, we would not be talking about this movie twenty years after it was made. It would be relegated to the cheesy rom-com lineup on TBS’ Saturday afternoon lineup, sandwiched between How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days and Bride Wars. Thank goodness this is NOT a Hollywood film. This is Australian, and because this is Baz Luhrmann, this is full-on, hard core, acid trippy insanity. It’s a predictable story arc between the two main characters, but nearly everything else in the film is so wacky oddball nutjob, it keeps you on your toes.
I tend to like films that are heavily stylized. I like the feeling of being pulled into someone else’s fantasy playground, where everyone acts a certain peculiar way and everything looks a certain peculiar way. Don’t get me wrong, I like realistic films as well, but sometimes I want the fantasy. And Baz Luhrmann is a director who believes in stylization. I think his personal motto must be “To hell with ‘less is more’ – MORE IS MORE!” Compared with its contemporaries, Strictly Ballroom is totally over the top in terms of stylization, and thank goodness. There are vivid bright colors, insane pops of neon, ludicrous taffeta costumes, over the top makeup, hair teased to defy gravity, cartoony flashbacks, and moments where reality careens wildly off the road and explodes in a fire bomb completely unrealistic given the amount of gas that was in the tank.
It’s hard to believe this is anyone’s first film. Strictly Ballroom is a balls to the wall ambitious, and probably slightly arrogant, first film to try to make. It is NOT modest, it is NOT small. It’s big and loud and neon and raucous and insane and grotesque and incapable of slowing down for an instant. In short, it’s Baz Luhrmann making his grand entrance to the world of international cinema. Watch the first ten minutes of this movie. All of them, title sequence included. They are phenomenal. We get a cartoon title that twinkles in time with the waltz music, a slow-motion dance sequence full of tulle and feathers and neon and body glitter, a flashback sequence that uses eye-witness accounts to delve into the horror of trying to dance your own moves at a Federation Dance Competition, a high-strung and garishly made-up woman weeping about where she could have gone wrong as a mother to have Scott fail her so by dancing his own moves. In ten minutes, you know what Luhrmann is all about. He shows you, and you just know.
The richness to this movie is phenomenal. There are at least a dozen minor characters that populate the dance world of Scott and Fran, and most of these characters are given an unexpected depth of emotional backstory, even if they DO look like cartoons. Admittedly, keeping track of them can get a little confusing sometimes, especially considering that Scott’s former partner is named Liz (a young woman), whereas one of Scott’s coaches is named Les (an old man). Said in an Australian accent, they sound, well, exactly the same. No worries, though, I have the solution: watch the film as many times as it takes to figure out who’s who. You’ll enjoy yourself, trust me. Additionally, there’s a bit of unexpected realism (in a Baz Luhrmann film?? Surely not!!) with regard to the dancing. Paul Mercurio is a professional dancer first, an actor second; he’s carved out a second career as a judge on Australia’s Dancing With the Stars. He started dancing at the age of nine. Tara Morice, on the other hand, was a stage actress who only had six weeks of dance training before shooting began for Strictly Ballroom. When you see the two of them dance together, it’s very clear that Mercurio is a better dancer. But, well, that fits the script. Scott is the accomplished dancer, and Fran is the beginner. I know it’s an odd little bit to focus on, but I *liked* that she didn’t magically turn into a professional.
I watched Strictly Ballroom tonight because I felt like I needed a bit of a lift and I wanted to watch a romance. I wanted to watch two people fall in love with one another. Yes, I get those urges sometimes. All the gritty, moving drama in the world is fantastic, but dammit, sometimes, I just want to see a guy meet a girl and have them fall for one another. Unfortunately, the standard for such romances is pretty much rock bottom for Hollywood these days, so that gushy feeling I get in my stomach when I’m really rooting for the hero and heroine is pushed aside by the feeling of nausea. Not so for Strictly Ballroom. Despite all the utter insanity around them, there is a real, honest to god chemistry between Scott and Fran. They slowly fall for each other, and it’s wonderful to behold. The sexiest scene of the movie is an unassuming little tango between the two of them to the music of Doris Day’s “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps.” That’s when their heat just jumps off the screen, and that gushy feeling in my stomach is all “YESSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!!”
I was in college in the late nineties, back in the heyday of the video rental store. On campus, our college had “Campus Movie Channels,” two of them. Each channel showed four movies, total, for a total of two weeks, then it switched to a new four films. Strictly Ballroom was on the campus channel during my junior year, airing at 10am and 10pm everyday for two weeks. I remember this because I think I watched it almost every night at 10pm for those two weeks, as did most of my suitemates. We loved it. We loved it because a) Paul Mercurio is an effing hottie with a body (a necessity for a suite full of twenty-year-old girls) b) it had awesome dancing in it (not a necessity but a great advantage for said audience), and c) it involved two people falling in love with one another (necessity). What I remember about my impression of Strictly Ballroom back then was a very early hint of realizing that this movie didn’t follow any sort of premade rules. It was different and unique, and it did NOT fit into Hollywood’s cookie cutter rom-com pattern. I didn’t like it because it was different, but I didn’t turn away from it because it was different either. In all honesty, this is probably one of the first overseas films that I fell in love with, while also realizing that other countries don’t make movies the way we do. I hadn’t really come across that before.
In college, we all loved Dirty Dancing. In hindsight, Dirty Dancing is crap. Fun crap, perhaps, but crap. In college, we called Strictly Ballroom “The Australian Dirty Dancing.” But in hindsight, this film stands up for itself, far better than its Patrick Swayze predecessor. Give me Strictly Ballroom any day of the week.
Arbitrary Rating: 9/10. I’m really wavering on this, though, because I forgot how much I loved this movie until I rewatched it. This may not be the most profound movie ever made, but it just makes me HAPPY. Don’t be surprised if I edit this at some point and bump up the score to reflect my personal adoration of this film.
ETA: Yeah. I like this movie too much; check that, I *love* this movie too much to give it anything shy of a 10. I'm bumping this up. Rating upon consideration: 10/10