On 10th May 1992 a film was premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and received a fifteen minute standing ovation. Then an agent from the Rank Organisation dashed in to snap up the UK film rights. It was the debut feature from a young Australian auteur who would go on to win awards for theatre, film, and TV work. He is Baz Luhrmann and the film was Strictly Ballroom.
With what may seem like a great deal of braggadocio for a first time director, Strictly Ballroom is the opening film in the “Red Curtain Trilogy”. I’m not sure when Mr Luhrmann developed the concept of this trilogy but I’d like to think it was early on and he had the confidence and talent to see it through. For those who’ve never heard of it, Baz Luhrmann’s Red Curtain Trilogy is not like other trilogies out there…
A Life Lived In Fear Is A Life Half Lived
The three films that make up the trilogy are Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, and Moulin Rouge! Those three films don’t share any plot or character relationships, rather like Edgar Wright’s Cornetto trilogy. What they do share are theatre motifs; dance in Strictly Ballroom, poetry and language in Romeo + Juliet, and song in Moulin Rouge!
I’ll say right from the start that Strictly Ballroom is a firm favourite of mine. Ever since I found it in the early nineties. It’s one of my multi-format favourites; seen in the cinema, and owned on VHS, DVD, Blu Ray, and download. It is watched several times a year and is one of those films that still elicits a physical response at certain points.
What is Strictly Ballroom all about? I suppose this is the time that I should be issuing spoiler warnings. But, as the great man himself once said about his work, “within the first ten minutes you know how it’s going to end.” I think I can be allowed a bit of latitude when it comes to a thirty year old film!
A Beginner Has No Right To Approach An Open Amateur
Strictly Ballroom is the story of Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio). He is the son of ballroom dancers and has been dancing since he was six years old. He looks destined to be the next Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Amateur Five Dance Latin American champion but he is not a happy bunny. He’s mastered all the official dances and has won all the local area competitions but he’s become bored with all that and has started devising his own steps.
But then came the The Southern District’s Waratah Championship. Specifically, the Rumba! Scott’s arch rival, Ken Railings (John Hannan), forces Scott and his partner, Liz Holt (Gia Carides), into a corner. Refusing to be trapped Scott dances his way out but, in order to do so, he has to dance his own, unorthodox steps. While this gets him out of a sticky spot it annoys the Australian Dancing Federation president Barry Fife (Bill Hunter).
If we weren’t way back in 1992 I’d have said that Bill Hunter was doing a Donald Trump impersonation! Too much fake tan, a very dubious hair style, self opinionated, bullying, sexist, and incapable of saying a sentence without including a malapropism. However, this is before Donald Trump became Donald Trump so it must just be a coincidence.
I Have To Help Wayne With His Bogo Pogo
What Barry Fife is so annoyed and upset about is that he has a lot to gain by maintaining the status quo and outlawing “flashy, crowd pleasing steps”. His competitions, training schools, and instructional videos only have any value as long as everyone sticks to the same routines…remains Strictly Ballroom. At one point Fife says “Where do you think we’d be if everyone went around making up their own steps?” To which Scott replies “Out of a job!”
What follows is fairly predictable. Arguments back at the dance studio run by Scott’s parents, Doug (Barry Otto) and Shirley (Pat Thomson). Liz doesn’t want to dance with Scott because Scott won’t follow the rules. Thanks to a freak accident, Liz leaves Scott to go and dance with Ken Railings. So now Scott has three weeks to find a partner for the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Amateur Five Dance Latin American Championship finals.
Enter Fran, Tara Morice in her feature debut. Fran is the archetypal ugly duckling; thanks to heavy make up, huge glasses, dodgy hair, and dowdy clothes. She’s only been dancing for two years and hasn’t had a male partner yet. That doesn’t stop her telling Scott that she likes his new steps and thinks that they should dance together in the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Amateur Five Dance Latin American finals.
Son, Can I Bend Your Ear For A Tick?
There then follows all manner of completely predictable situations. Fran teaches Scott something. Things start to go right but get dashed. Fran gets more and more beautiful. Scott learns the true spirit of Latin American dance. Barry Fife’s lies are uncovered. Ultimately, everything resolves to a happy ending. There is trope upon theme upon motif but, guess what…IT DOESN’T MATTER!!!
It plays with the concept. Sets up jokes, telegraphs them even but, when the punch line arrives, it’s still funny. That’s down to the delivery and acting skills of the cast particularly from youngster Kylie (Lauren Hewett). But all the cast are excellent; both the seasoned veterans and the relative newcomers. Despite this being a debut feature for the director and some of the cast they all perform as naturally as if this was a documentary or a news report.
Without the benefit of a chat with the man himself, I have to assume that one of the reasons why Strictly Ballroom was such a roaring success was because it wasn’t, by any means, unknown territory. Back in 1984, when Baz Luhrmann was a student of the National Institute of Dramatic Arts in Sydney, he set up a short play with fellow students based on his earlier experiences of the cutthroat world of amateur competitive ballroom dancing.
There Are No New Steps!
An expanded version of the play became a success at the Czechoslovakian Youth Drama Festival in Bratislava in 1986. In 1988, it had a successful season at Sydney’s Wharf Theatre, where it was seen by Australian music executive Ted Albert and his wife Antoinette. They both loved it, and, they went to Luhrmann with their plan to transform his play into a film. He agreed on the condition that he would also get to direct it. So, while Strictly Ballroom may have been his debut, there’s no doubt Baz had a very firm vision of how the finished film should look.
Sadly, Ted Albert died suddenly early in production and there is a dedication to him in the credits. Another sad event was that Pat Thomson, who played Scott’s mother Shirley Hastings, died on the 19th April 1992, three weeks before the premiere.
The obvious thing that lifts Strictly Ballroom is the dancing. After all…it’s a film about dancing, based on a play about dancing, written by someone who had been a dancer in his youth. The obvious thing to seal the deal would be to make sure that there are some actors who can, at least, look like they can dance. This production had five professional dancers in the cast: Paul Mercurio (Scott Hastings), Todd McKenney (Nathan Starkey), Antonio Vargas (Rico, Fran’s father), Sonia Kruger (Tina Sparkle), and Leonie Page (Vanessa Cronin).
The Rumba Is The Dance Of Love
And, obviously, in order to dance you need some music! The soundtrack is a joy. There are old favourites for the old time dances; the overture from Carmen, The Blue Danube, “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” by Doris Day, and La Cumparsita. There are also some newer tunes which have been rearranged.
There is a delightful reworking of Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time sung by Tara Morice. It’s used to link the early “getting to know each other” scenes between Scott and Fran. It drifts in and out between shots of Scott and Fran and whatever else is going on around the dance studio. It starts at 21:38 and finishes at 31:15; the ten minutes fly by!
Obviously, though, everything is saved up for the big finale. It was the first scene shot and was filmed at a real dance competition during the lunch break. The golden jacket worn by Scott was the most expensive costume in the entire film. The flamenco shoes were imported from Spain. Paul Mercurio may have been a dancer but he danced ballet rather than ballroom. Despite that he filmed the final dance perfectly…even with a sprained ankle.
Shame On You, Miss Leachman!
The final dance still elicits a profound physical response in me. When the music kicks back in for Scott and Fran’s Paso Doble, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Every. Single, Time! It is a combination of admiration for the dancing skill and sheer joy at the resolution of the narrative. As I said earlier…this is not a new story and there are no surprises but that doesn’t matter in the slightest.
Strictly Ballroom has been a family favourite here for most of the thirty years it has been around. It was my daughter who saw the 30th anniversary announcement from the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia and passed it on to me. She also loves this film and I think my grandchildren will be being introduced to it before too much longer. Just to embarrass her…we went through a period of finding lip marks on the same spot on the TV screen every day. We were watching Strictly Ballroom and noticed a point when Paul Mercurio filled the screen and his lips matched up with the smears that kept appearing on the TV!
Incidentally, most countries have a version of a pro-am dance competition. They redefine who is a celebrity and then pair them up with a professional dancer. There follows weeks of training and dance offs until a retired newsreader, politician, or cricketer is crowned that years winner. Most other countries call their version “Dancing With The Stars” or something similar. In the UK it is called “Strictly Come Dancing”. There was a televised dancing competition called “Come Dancing” here from 1949. Guess where the “Strictly” came from…
Movie Grade: A++
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Former teacher, lecturer, homelessness administrator, pharmacy dispenser now happily retired, happily married, and a very happy granddad. I live next to the Mersey but on the side Daniel Craig and Taron Egerton come from rather than the side the Beatles came from!