[box cover]

Strictly Ballroom

Buena Vista Home Video

Starring Paul Mercurio and Tara Morice

Written by Andrew Bovell, Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce
Directed by Baz Luhrmann

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Review by Dawn Taylor                    

Did you hate Moulin Rouge? Did the hyper-stylized Romeo + Juliet give you an enormous headache? Perhaps you'll find it in your heart to grant Australian director Baz Luhrmann one more chance before you consign him to the "most dreaded filmmakers" list and watch his first film, 1992's Strictly Ballroom, a warm, funny, bizarre love story set in the world of professional ballroom dancing.

Strictly Ballroom began for Luhrmann as a project when he was a drama student, then re-worked to become an award-winning production at a Czech theater festival, and then re-tooled yet again as a successful stage show. In bringing it to the screen, Luhrmann created the first of what he now refers to as his "red-curtain cinematic form," using a highly stylized, theatrical presentation to tell a simple, classic story, with a lot of self-aware film references thrown in for good measure.

The movie opens smack in the middle of the gaudy, insane world of Aussie ballroom dance, at the district championships. Tuxedoed men with slicked-back hair twirl women done up with all the subtlety of peacocks in mating season — huge, lacquered hair, sequined gowns and multicolor makeup jobs, feathers flying off their costumes as they mambo and cha-cha. The two top couples soon stand out from the pack on the floor: white-haired, white-suited and white-toothed Ken Railings (John Hannan) and his partner Pam Short (Kerry Shrimpton), and gorgeous young Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) dancing with the high-strung Liz Holt (Gia Carides). In hilarious mock interviews cut into the proceedings, we meet a cast of characters who share their horror over "the incident" to come — in the middle of competition, Scott dances his own steps, in direct violation of the highly restrictive Australian Dancing Federation rules. When Scott shows off his wild new moves — causing a collective thrill of excitement and disapproval in the crowd — Liz flees the dance floor in tears, and Scott incurs the wrath of everyone in his small world.

Most concerned about Scott's trespass is his mother, Shirley Hastings (Pat Thompson) who runs a dance academy with family friend Les Kendall (Peter Whitford). With pressure on them from pink-faced Federation president Barry Fife (Bill Hunter), they demand that Scott desist from dancing his "flashy, crowd-pleasing" steps, as it could ruin his chance of winning the upcoming Pan-Pacific Grand Prix. Shirley, a part-time Avon Lady with leather-tan skin and what may be cinema's creepiest, most insincere smile, desperately tries to get him a new partner, as Liz has taken up with Ken Railings. In just one of many very weird, very funny scenes, Liz shrieks at Scott, "What do I want? I want Ken Railings to walk in here and tell me, 'Pam Short's broken both her legs and I want to dance with you!'" After a quick shot of Pam screaming behind the wheel of her car as it crashes, Ken walks in and says just that. "That was unexpected," says a young dance student.

The only people on Scott's side are his bespectacled, hen-pecked father (Barry Otto) and the dance academy's resident wallflower, Fran (Tara Morice), who convinces Scott to use her as a partner and to dance his own steps in the Pan-Pacifics. With the help of Fran's Spanish father (Australian flamenco dancer Antonio Vargas) the two create a flamboyant version of the Paso Doble. But just when it looks like love will win the day, Scott is offered the chance to join Australia's top girl dancer, Tina Sparkle, whose partner has retired to devote more time to his landscaping business. Will love and artistic freedom conquer all, or will Scott take the sure thing and win the Pan Pacific Grand Prix and make everyone else happy?

*          *          *

Stylistically, Strictly Ballroom is a much, much more accessible film than either Moulin Rouge or Romeo + Juliet. But the oddball Luhrmann style is readily apparent in the garish lighting, the gaudy costuming and the extravagantly theatrical presentation. Like with his other two "red curtain" films, he never lets you forget that you're watching a movie — it's a style that many who believe that film should be as naturalistic as possible have found grating. However, it works brilliantly with Strictly Ballroom because it's such an old-fashioned, classic-movie story. Despite the visual references to '70s and '80s styles, the movie mainly recalls old boy-meets-girl films of the past, where we know that a happy ending is assured once the boy and girl overcome the inevitable obstacles. Placing it solidly in the truly bizarre world of ballroom dance gives it a sharp edge that makes the old story feel fresh and unexpected. Strictly Ballroom is a genuine delight all the way around.

Director Luhrmann has been instrumental in creating the special edition DVDs for all three of his "red curtain" films. With Buena Vista's Strictly Ballroom, we get a gorgeous anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) in what Luhrmann calls "quasi-MGM Technicolor" with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. On board is a delightful commentary with Luhrmann, production designer Catherine Martin and choreographer John "Cha Cha" O'Connell; "Behind the Red Curtain," a five-minute behind-the-scenes featurette; "That's Looking Good," showcasing some of the costumes; "Dance to Win," a still gallery of promotional designs with commentary (the film was titled Dancing Hero in Japan!); "Yesterday's Hero," offering background information and old photos of Luhrmann, who grew up in a ballroom-dancing family; and "Love is in the Air," on the casting of Mercurio and Morice. The best extra by far is the 30-minute 1986 documentary "Samba to Slow Fox," which proves that no matter how over-the-top Luhrmann's view of the ballroom dancing world may seem, it's tame in comparison to the real thing. And if you can find the Easter egg, there's a deleted scene.

— Dawn Taylor

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