Directors often have an urge to break from the mold with their premiere features, trying to bring as much attention to their emerging talent as possible. Some go the route of surprising storytelling, while others veer towards the abstract. Filmmakers like Baz Luhrmann, however, know where their strengths lie, which leads them to take on simpler projects that emphasize their passions -- his being showmanship, visual flare, and eccentric characterizations that work in the context of his oeuvre. Strictly Ballroom, Luhrmann's freshman feature, shows the origin of the director's signature style at its most reserved and down-to-earth, offering little that we haven't seen before in other music-and-dance driven productions but in a vivacious, flamboyant way -- more Moulin Rouge! than Romeo + Juliet. A lack of originality doesn't shackle its over-the-top appeal, though, as it gleefully dances around the waning musically-driven patch of cinema from the '90s.
Capturing the Australian dance league as it approaches the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Championship (The Pan-Pacific Grand Prix? Yes, the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix), Luhrmann's script -- hinged on a play he wrote and re-wrote in the '80s -- follows ballroom dancer Scott (Paul Mercurio) as he undergoes an artistic awakening. In the middle of an exhibition several days beforehand, told in flashback form through Best in Show-type interviews, Scott integrated a few colorful maneuvers that deviated from the "rules" of the floor. Luhrmann's film catches up with him in his parents' dance studio afterwards, where he's scrambling to find a partner after his current one freaks out on him for his antics. Enter Fran (Tara Morice), a glasses-wearing, frumpy, clumsy dancer wannabe who likes Scott's new moves. As he deals with pressure from his parents to achieve greatness and a few sneering upper-crust dance officials, as well as a slew of tryouts, Scott begins to practice after-hours with Fran under the pretense that she just might be able to dance with him in the Grand Prix.
Strictly Ballroom unflinchingly mixes influences from other like-minded productions for its formula, where the imprint of Dirty Dancing and Grease -- and even a taste of My Fair Lady -- clearly stir in its loins. Two drastically-different entities of the opposite sex pair up, begin learning from one another about technique and life, and undergo scrutiny from their peers, all with a not-so-thin veil of romance draped over the suspense leading towards "the big dance". Will romance blossom, and will they be able to pull it off? Those are the questions that it poses, and the answers that squeak out of the glitz and glamor of Luhrmann's construction will not surprise in the slightest. And it doesn't stop with the fundamentals, such as stuff like an 11th hour emergence of an optional partner for Scott, just in the nick of time for the Grand Prix. Not quite a high-school prom, but it's close enough.
Original in construction it isn't, but Strictly Ballroom offers a vibrant style that spruces up tired elements like sunshine on wilting foliage. Luhrmann's eye, which revolves around quick editing and effervescent colors, inflates the electricity stirring in the dance studio and the performance venues, moving quickly and passionately between sequences. Yet this isn't the same Luhrmann we've seen over the past fifteen-or-so years; he lingers on shots in a customary and steadfast way that's not readily seen in his other pictures, dwelling on Scott and Fran's intimate moments as "Time After Time" gracefully backs their movements -- and one or two on-lookers taking notice. Sure, the bold, over-caffeinated caricatures still permeate Luhrmann's dance world, with the likes of Scott's mother Shirley (Pat Thomson) and the big-'n-grumpy org header/judge Barry Fife (Bill Hunter) pushing the frustration button too frequently with bombast, but the film's focus on capricious joy suggests a level of restraint on the director's part.
Where Strictly Ballroom gets things right is in the saccharine emotionality of those recognizable moments between Scott and Fran, an exciting and ultimately endearing swirl of dance steps and strategically-placed exposition. At first, we're given Paul Mercurio's dapper yet branching-out Scott and Tara Morice's spectacled ungainliness as Fran, and it seems like the process of their meeting-in-the-middle might be somewhat ham-fisted -- some of which the periphery dramatic developments, and Fran's rushed progression, can be. But when the lineage of Scott's family becomes a driving factor and Fran's Latin heritage begins to seep into the picture, culminating in a rather earnest and grin-inducing surprise late in the film, the evolution of the two characters becomes undeniably charming. Even if it does just follow through with a predictable conclusion to a fault (aside from a novel spin on the revered "slow clap"), Luhrmann's razzle-dazzle makes the rhythmic flow worth the time.
Video and Audio:
Considering Strictly Ballroom was shot on 35mm film on a shoestring budget nearly twenty years ago, this 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation impresses with its cleanliness, clarity, and robustness of color. Very little print damage can be seen across the entirety of the picture, though some heavy grain and some flattened, harsh details can still be seen, but most of the picture carries depth and dimensionality extremely well, and in a very film-like fashion. Some of the louder colors bloom a bit, but they're succulent to behold in context. And, when necessary, individual sequins shimmer and sparkles glisten with aplomb. It's not a pitch-perfect transfer, but it's very suitable to the film's essence.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track hits about the same rhythm as the image transfer, crisply tackling the claps, clanks of feet, and beats of the music. The underlying music, especially that of "Time After Time", balances against the vocal tones in an audible but purposefully low-balanced stream, while the claps of shoes against hardwood floors and the strumming of guitar strings hit punchy, respectable levels. Some of the vocal delivery pushes against the upper shelf of the audio track at times, though infrequently, while the echo of an applauding crowd trickles to the rear channel on a few occasions. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are available.
From Stage to Screen (23:21):
The big allure to this special edition of Strictly Ballroom comes in this exclusive featurette, which features Baz Luhrmann in extended interview time. Here, he discusses the genesis and development of the story, elaborating on its history through two previous stage versions and the final leap into becoming a motion picture -- while tripping over a little discussion about Cold War-era Czechoslovakia in the process. He discusses rewriting the script a bit to take it further away from being a clone of Dirty Dancing (which, if it's true, is a great thing, because it's already amazingly similar), while talk also falls on how Luhrmann and crew scrambled against the clock to rope in the film's production budget for a filmmaker that hadn't any experience. It also reveals the reason behind why the film's dedicated to ..., which is actually a pretty heartfelt story. This mini-doc, though short, certainly warrants the attention of the film's fans.
The rest of this Strictly Ballroom DVD will look very familiar to folks who already own the older edition from Miramax (and Fox's "Red Curtain Trilogy" set, which borrowed the same disc for that box); it contains a typically-vibrant and insightful Audio Commentary with Baz Luhrmann, Catherine Martin, and John O'Connell, a somewhat humdrum and low-energy vintage mini-doc on Australian professional dancers entitled Samba to Slow Fox (30:15, 4x3), as well as a Deleted Scene (1:56, non-16x9 Letterbox) and a Design Gallery.
It might not be innovative, but Strictly Ballroom does strike an appealing chord within Baz Luhrmann's first go at directing. You'll find it very familiar in its mechanics, but his signature style and the charm generated between the two leads boosts it up into a charmer of a musically-driven satire. Miramax's new DVD comes Recommended, sporting a very strong transfer and a nice new featurette that concentrates on the film's genesis. Fans of Luhrmann who haven't seen this one yet won' be disappointed, even if his premiere film isn't quite up to the same caliber as his other work.