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strictlyballroom

Everyone’s gotta start somewhere and, for writer-director Baz Luhrmann, that somewhere was Strictly Ballroom (1992), the quirky, film festival darling that launched his career. From there, of course, Luhrmann would go on to make ridiculously extravagant, lavish films like Romeo + Juliet (1996), Moulin Rouge (2001), Australia (2008) and The Great Gatsby (2013), films which seemed to be defined as much by their excesses and eye-popping production values as for their characterizations and storylines. Strictly Ballroom, however, still stands as Luhrmann’s most human picture: despite it’s silly, slapsticky energy, this is a modest little film about small-town people trying to realize their dreams, a relatable nugget that’s low on flash but high on energy and fun. Although Luhrmann would go on to “bigger and better things,” his follow-up films, to this point, have managed to be neither as human nor as charming as his debut. Sometimes, the simplest things really are the best.

As the title insinuates, Strictly Ballroom is about the world of competitive ballroom dancing or, at the very least, the Australian equivalent of said sport. Our dashing hero, Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio), seems to have it all: ample talent; beautiful partner, Liz (Gia Carides); loving, supportive mother and father (Pat Thomson and Barry Otto) who run a dance studio; and the admiration of people like Barry Fife (Bill Hunter), the President of the Australian Ballroom Confederation. Scott is a champion and seems a lock to win the Pan Pacific Championship, the dance title that he’s had his eyes on for pretty much his entire life. Everything, it would seem, is coming up Milhouse for Scott…until, of course, it doesn’t.

During a dance competition, Scott and Liza get boxed in by Scott’s smarmy dance nemesis, Ken Railings (John Hannan) and his partner. Feeling trapped and in a panic, Scott loses his head and, instinctively, busts out some decidedly non-regulation, “modern dance”-type moves. His parents are stunned, the Ballroom Confederation is disgusted and his partner is in tears: how could Scott possibly do this to all of them? Feeling suddenly free for the first time, however, Scott refuses to back down, determined to win the Pan Pacific competition with his new-found moves, whether or not the judges, his family or his partner think it’s kosher. Scott finds a kindred spirit in Fran (Tara Morice), a beginning dance student who shares Scott’s disdain for the rules and seems more than a little sweet on him. At first, of course, Scott treats her like the vain, egotistical jerk he is: he blows off her initial request to dance with him with the haughty exclamation, “A beginner has no right approaching an open amateur.” Luckily for all involved, Scott eventually gets over himself and begins dancing with Fran, first in secret and then in public, to the massive consternation of his micro-managing mother.

Everything comes to a head at the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix (where else?), as the various dancers splinter and regroup in various iterations. Skullduggery abounds: Fife and Scott’s mom scheme to get him hooked up with Tina Sparkle (Sonia Kruger); Scott’s father and his friend, Wayne (Pip Mushin) scheme to thwart Fife’s plan to kick out Scott; Scott tries to win back Fran, after realizing his colossal idiocy and former partner Liz schemes to get away from Railings, who’s revealed himself to be an obnoxious drunk. As the madcap carnival swirls to a conclusion, all involved will learn the most important of life-lessons: it’s not whether you win or lose that matters but whether you had fun doing it.

As one of the films that helped kick off the independent movie surge in the early ’90s, Strictly Ballroom will always have a little spot carved out in the hearts of film fans. Unlike many films of that era (fuck you very much, Clerks), the film actually holds up fairly well today, coming across as a spiritual predecessor to Christopher Guest films like Waiting for Guffman (1996), Best in Show (2000) and A Mighty Wind (2003). Like Guest’s movies, Strictly Ballroom isn’t a particularly sharp or mean film: for one thing, the sweet romance between Scott and Fran is too front and center, while the dastardly machinations by the villainous Fife are too broad and silly to have much menace. It’s also clear that Luhrmann, for whatever reason, feels some genuine affection for his characters and doesn’t want to poke too many holes in them: even Scott’s mom, who can sometimes seem like a bush-league, dance studio Cruella De Vil, is given enough backstory justification to explain many of her more questionable actions.

I’ve never really warmed to any of Luhrmann’s post-Strictly Ballroom films (I haven’t even bothered to see The Great Gatsby, although I’ll get around to it some day), although I distinctly recall seeing Romeo + Juliet in the theater and thinking it was a good, but not great, retelling of the old chestnut. For the most part, I find Luhrmann’s films to be the very definition of “style over substance,” particularly the ridiculous excesses of Moulin Rouge!, although Australia is just as over-stuffed and silly, in its own way. Strictly Ballroom is a much more down-to-earth, character-based effort, however, possibly because it was an adaptation of one of Luhrmann’s stage plays. Whatever the reason, this is one of the few Luhrmann films where the actors don’t feel like set dressing, living props only around to show off the consistently impressive production design.

Strictly Ballroom is not, of course, a particularly original or unique film: it manages to hit pretty much every single beat that you would expect from this kind of light, romantic comedy, right down to the marginalized parent who swoops in at the eleventh hour to save the day. That being said, the film is still full of lots of fun, energetic moments: one of my favorite bits was the ridiculous smooth-jazz, instrumental version of Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time that scores the montage scene where Scott (unsuccessfully) auditions a small army of replacement partners. The film is full of nifty little touches like this, perhaps hinting at the overly busy, baroque productions that Luhrmann would later make his calling card. At the beginning, however, he was a quirky, slightly off-center indie filmmaker with a keen interest in exploring some of the odder inhabitants of his native Australia. He may have become a household name with films like Moulin Rouge but I can’t help wishing he’d give us another one like Strictly Ballroom, instead. There are already plenty of big, gaudy, loud films in the world: a few more with a little heart couldn’t hurt.

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