Strictly Ballroom

Strictly Ballroom

D: Baz Luhrmann (1992); with Paul Mercurio, Tara Morice, Bill Hunter, Barry Otto, Pat Thompson. Strictly Ballroom, the first feature from Aussie director Baz Luhrmann, boasts the same flashy, irreverent spirit as his second film, the much-maligned William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet. That sensibility didn't always work in Romeo + Juliet (a messy, minor masterpiece in its own right) because the tragedy at the core of that piece simply could not sustain Luhrmann's occasionally slapsticky, consistently absurd tone. But what didn't work so well in Romeo + Juliet succeeds brilliantly in the wacky and wonderful Strictly Ballroom. Luhrmann employs a semi-documentary approach to chronicle competitive ballroom dancers in their quest to win the Pan Pacific Grand Prix Amateur 5 Latin American Dance Championship. He tongue-in-cheekily jabs at the participants, so serious about something so obviously silly (and he pulls out all the stops in showcasing that silliness -- the tacky wardrobe, the hairsprayed helmet heads, the sex-as-strategy-to-get-ahead). But beneath all that snickering -- or rather, gliding gracefully just above it -- Luhrmann delivers a loving, lyrical tribute to the art of dance. And in Paul Mercurio, he's found his ideal ambassador of the paso doble and the pogo-pogo. Mercurio is a wonder as Scott Hastings, the enfant terrible of ballroom dance who insists upon breaking code and dancing his own steps. He has the long, lean lines and effortless grace of a Gene Kelly, coupled with a brazen sexual intensity. He's young and brash, the Rebel Without a Partner, scrambling to find a female, any female, to join him in his battle against the Australian Dance Federation. But hark! Who's that ugly duckling in the corner? It's Fran, a young woman who dreams up her own steps, too, and isn't going to let her chronic acne, Coke bottle glasses, or two left feet get in her way. There are few surprises here -- boy gets girl, girl loses acne, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back as they dance the final, showstopping number. But isn't that why we love old movies? Strictly Ballroom hearkens back to the grand spectacle and sweetness of a classic Rodgers & Hammerstein show. This Aussie outing tempers with its campy bent the slightly saccharine taste of old Hollywood musicals, but it just can't hide its sincerity -- sincerity in its love for dance and for underdogs and for a boy getting a girl. Strictly Ballroom unabashedly wears its heart on its sleeve. And oh, what a delightfully tacky, silver-sequined sleeve it is.

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