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directed by Baz Luhrmann

In twenty years, I can guarantee that no one will be looking at the films of Ron Howard. The cinematic significance of films like Far and Away, Splash and A Beautiful Mind will rank up there with other Academy blockbusters like Titanic and Gladiator. Howards’s films lack innovation or style. At best, he makes functional movies that tug on the heartstrings at all the right moments. Baz Luhrman, on the other hand, is a director who’s going to have to wait a little for the recognition he is due. Ironically, the Academy’s inability to recognize vision is mirrored in Luhrman’s Strictly Ballroom. If he had had a crystal ball, he couldn’t have told the story with more accuracy.

Strictly Ballroom is one of those great films that can be different things to different people. To some, it may be no more than a Pygmalianesque love story; to others, it may just be a film about ballroom dancing; and to others it is the story of an artist trying to find his own voice. I’ve heard it compared to films as different as Dirty Dancing and Babette’s Feast. It is one of the few films to embrace the marginalized artist and the pop culture junkie with the same enthusiasm.

Scott just wants to dance while everyone around him wants him to win the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix in ballroom dancing. He tries to oblige those around him by dancing strictly by the numbers. Unfortunately, he can’t seem to keep himself from dancing his own self-made moves. These moves of his spark a mini-revolution in the ballroom dancing community and he’s ultimately left choosing the girl and his own voice or the Pan-pacific Grand Prix. There’s never any doubt about what he will choose as the movie draws to a close. Strictly Ballroom is so overwhelmingly optimistic that some might call it na´ve. Any opposition that the two dancers face is easily brooked, and by the end of the film, not only do Fran and Scott get to dance their moves, but the whole community accepts them.

One of my favorite things about this movie is that it avoids all the trappings of the standard romance movies. Unlike most films featuring a pair of lovers from different worlds, this film has no edge of suspense. Because there’s no doubt about how things will turn out, the film doesn’t see the need to manipulate the feelings of the audience. One of the film’s most significant caveats is that it completely leaves out the obligatory break-up scene. That scene has been played out in every Freddie Prinze movie to date where the boy or girl says that it just can’t work out. One minute Scott is dancing with Fran, the next minute he’s dancing with someone else. We all know what’s happened between the two cuts and that’s enough.

One of the most significant moments in the film for me occurs when Scott tries to get a straight answer from one of his friends. He had just lost a dance contest by dancing his own crazy moves and he asks his friend, "Did you like my moves?" His friend doesn’t know the right answer and can only reply, "I don’t know." This is an even bigger blow than saying, "Those moves were horrible." Scott’s friend can’t comment on the ‘new’ moves until he’s been told what to think.

There are some nice features on the DVD that should please fans of the film. It certainly lacks the depth of a disc like Moulin Rouge, but I’ve always felt that a good commentary is more valuable than a bucket full of trailers and promotional videos. Besides the commentary, the disc also presents us with some production stills and a short documentary that inspired the story. I’m really looking forward to the release of the Red Curtain Trilogy box set and the promise of some extras that not only look at the individual films, but also look at the films as a whole. The disc also has a nice transfer and a remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack.

The film ends on a note of pure joy that transcends the music, the dance When Paul dances at the end of the film he knows that he’s got no chance of winning. He just wants to dance. The message is simple, "Success in art will always be independent of contemporary critics." Than the film could be so unabashedly positive and message laden is a real testament to Luhrman’s vision. Luhrman is one of the most important directors working today. Whether you like his work or not is irrelevant. I think it’s impossible to watch his films without reacting to them in one way or another. The reaction to Strictly Ballroom might be a little muted when compared to the feelings evoked by Moulin Rouge or Romeo and Juliet, but those feelings are no less significant.

Jason Frank   (04/16/2002)

Snapshot

Ups: Great story; great acting; great direction; great DVD.

Downs: Maybe you aren't into Australian dancing films?

Platform: DVD

Check out our interview with Baz Luhrmann here.