In New York City, students in public school go through a program called "Ballroom in the Classroom" where they learn and then compete in ballroom dancing. This program reaches across the five burroughs of New York City and touches a wide range of students from the uber-impoverished to the fairly well situated. Mad Hot Ballroom follows this program at three different public schools in different areas of New York from early dance practices all the way through the final competition.
One of the things I like about Mad Hot Ballroom is that the film isn't just a rags to riches story; it doesn't try to show how ballroom dancing will keep kids off the street or how it provides them some sort of new future. The film's focus is present and immediate as it looks at the actual experience these kids have learning and performing ballroom dancing. The majority of the film's screen time is spent with the kids dancing and with the teachers who run the program. Notably absent from the film are the parents - aside from a few very short scenes, the parents and the family life of these students are not included in this film.
For the most part this approach works very well. Director Marilyn Agrelo does a good job helping the audience connect with a pretty large number of kids, and she keeps the film from ballooning into something a lot longer and a lot more tedious. The first two acts of the film are fairly light and enjoyable. The enthusiasm the kids have for dancing is infectious and almost everyone on screen is extremely likable and watchable. While the film does ultimately build towards a final competition, it's really at its best during the early stages of things where you get a lot more time to learn about the kids in the program and see them grow and evolve.
One of my biggest problems with the film is the third act, which focuses on the final competition of the program. The final minutes of the film are shot so poorly and are so anticlimactic it's really hard to feel the same level of excitement and emotion as the winning team. With the way the last fifteen minutes of the film are shot, there's so little suspense that even the most casual viewer will be able to easily figure out who wins, simply based on the way it is shot. Also distracting is some pretty slopping shooting where you often see other cameras from the documentary show up in the background.
Honestly, it's really nitpicking to tear the end of this film apart. The first half is so warm, so genuine and so enjoyable that even though it could have ended a lot better, the film is still a delight worth seeing. In addition to what's up on the screen, Mad Hot Ballroom holds additional significance as a film. The film had its debut at the 2005 Slamdance film fest and stands as the single biggest acquisition from that fest. Having a film like Mad Hot Ballroom debut at an indie fest like Slamdance, and then go on to such fantastic success, is really an important landmark, so for that fact alone it's worth checking this film out.
For some reason which is absolutely beyond me, the MPAA has rated Mad Hot Ballroom PG for some 'adult themes'. Again the MPAA shows how useless it is. The film is absolutely appropriate for all ages and is definitely a film that you can enjoy watching along with your children. I'd actually recommend the film for kids, as it really does a good job of showing the capabilities of kids to learn things as complex and mysterious as ballroom dancing.
Mad Hot Ballroom is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, and unfortunately it's a real mixed bag. The majority of the music in the film sounds quite good, but in many of the scenes with the kids and interviews the audio is overmodulated and gets clipped. There are many moments where the audio sounds quite tinny and hollow. I realize that the film was shot with a fairly low budget and it looks like it was sourced from digital video, however Paramount should have fixed these glaring audio errors either for the Theatrical release or for DVD. These glaring audio issues are pretty consistent with the approach that was taken to this DVD.
As with the audio there are issues apparent which are probably linked to the film's source material. Presented in anamorphic Widescreen, the image in general is pretty good for digital video. There are some scenes, however, where the colors bleed quite considerably with significant blooming. It's not enough to make a huge deal over, but it is there.
Shockingly there are no special features on Mad Hot Ballroom. Now, I'm never someone who thinks you should add extras for a film for the sake of having extras, but a film like Mad Hot Ballroom screams for good special features. Why isn't there a piece on this disc about the Ballroom in Classrooms program in NYC? Why aren't there follow-up interviews with the kids? Why isn't there a single thing dealing with the film's landmark jump from the Slamdance film fest to wide distribution? How about even a sample dance lesson for kids, like "How to do the Meringue"? Paramount should be ashamed of missing such rich opportunities. Releasing this film bare-bones is inexcusable and perhaps sheds light on how little faith the studio really has in this film.
I did really enjoy Mad Hot Ballroom, maybe not as much as I expected, but still enough to give it a solid recommendation. One of the great aspects of the film is that it can be enjoyed both by adults and kids. I saw Mad Hot Ballroom with both of my kids, and both of them enjoyed it. The DVD for Mad Hot Ballroom does suffer from some audio and video issues, but I'm willing to write those off as perhaps originating from the source material. What I can't excuse is Paramount releasing this film on a bare-bones DVD. It's enough to knock the film down from a Highly Recommended to simply Recommended.