Monday, April 5, 2021

Strictly Ballroom

Another of the movies that I had the chance to record during one of the free preview weekends is Strictly Ballroom. It's going to be on again multiple times this week, starting with 10:00 PM today on The Movie Channel (three hours later if you only have the west coast feed), so I sat down to watch it and do a post on it here.

The movie starts out in mockumentary fashion, with Shirley Hastings (Pat Thomson) talking about her son Scott. Shirley was big in the field of competitive ballroom dancing back in the day, and she stayed in the field after her competition days were over, having a son Scott (Paul Mercurio) and training him to dance, along with running a school of ballroom dancing. Scott apparently caused controversy at a district-level competition, by diverting from the traditional steps and doing his own thing, which caused a scandal in the cloistered world of competitive dance, and caused a breakup with dance partner Liz (Gina Carides).

The big competition, eventually leading to the Pan-Pacific Championship, is coming up fairly soon, and Scott needs a dance partner. Offering her services is Fran (Tara Morice). She's part of Australia's Spanish community, who emigrated to the country in the years immediately after World War II, at least as I understand it. So she's still got a father and grandmother with one foot in both Australia and the old country. But we're getting ahead of ourselves a bit, as the bigger problem is that she's one of the beginners at the dance school, and with her big glasses doesn't look the part of a ballroom dancer at all, which probably wouldn't work so well in competition.

Still, Scott decides to dance with her, mostly because he's reached the level of being passionate about doing the dancing he wants to do, which isn't necessarily the dance that everybody else would want him to do. So there's a lot of pressure on Scott from his mother, as well as from Kendall, the nominal owner of the dance school. On Fran's side, there's a lot of bigotry from the more established dancers, as well as pressure from her own family who aren't so sure of these non-Spanish dances with somebody not of the Spanish-Australian community.

Eventually, however, Scott comes to be accepted by Fran's family, and learns about his own parents' history with the Pan-Pacific, just in time for the big competition. Apparently, a lot of the judging is based on reputation, and it's tough to do well if the judges have already decided who they think is good based on past reputation. And will Fran even dance in the competition? Will Scott put in his own steps?

There's a lot good in Strictly Ballroom, which takes one of the basic universal storylines, that of tradition versus modernity, and updates it deftly by putting it into a relatively new setting of competitive ballroom dancing. (I distinctly recall my local PBS station running some shows of such competitions in the late 1980s or early 1990s, around the time Strictly Ballroom came out.) However, I had a lot of problems with the movie, or more specifically the direction by Baz Luhrmann.

There's a lot of artificially gaudy color, which reminded me of some of the camerawork in David Lynch's Blue Velvet. To an extent, that fits in with the movie in that the way the competitors make themselves up for the competitions (in part, I believe, to capture the attention of the judges who are not always up close to the dancers on the other end of the dance floor) does look highly stylized. But I felt Luhrmann overdid it, to the point that it became intrusive and took away from the story.

The other big problem I had was that Strictly Ballroom gave off a strong vibe of what led to Variety's "Stix Nix Hick Pix" headline, only in an Australian context (of course I, being American, may have a completely wrong view of Australia here). It felt a lot like Luhrmann playing the part of a sophisticated metropolitan, saying "Look at these icky lower-class people from the sticks trying to get ideas above their station with their ballroom dancing! Aren't they so déclassé?" It gets tedious as fast as Douglas Sirk's movies do. Reading the Wikipedia article on Luhrmann, it seems he grew up with a ballroom dance teaching mother in the rural part of New South Wales, so I can't help but wonder if it's personal with him.

Still, there's definitely a lot of Strictly Ballroom that's interesting and definitely worth a watch.

No comments: