Director: Baz Luhrmann
“Fast-moving, romantic, funny, and full of wit, Strictly Ballroom is sterling escapist fare.” (810, Ernest Hardy, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) If there is one thing Baz Luhrmann does exceptionally well it is create extraordinary escapes from reality through the medium of film. I love Baz Luhrmann – I think he has a really unique style that unites all his films. As Wikipedia says his “works are distinguished by their flamboyant and colourful theatricality.” Having said that of his four films, Strictly Ballroom is my least favourite. It’s much less polished than the rest of his oeuvre but then it is his debt film, and has a much more independent vibe to it.
“What makes the film work is that beneath the fast edits, swooning soundtrack, and gloriously garish costumes (and even more hysterically garish secondary characters) is an enormous heart, a depth of soul.” (810) You can see the beginnings of many of the elements that will come to dominate his feature films. Most obviously in Strictly Ballroom it is the mismatched central pairing. In Moulin Rouge (2001) it’s a penniless bohemian writer (Ewen McGregor) and the high-class courtesan (Nicole Kidman); Australia (2008) sees the wealthy ranch owner (Nicole Kidman) falling for the outcast drover (Hugh Jackman); his modernized adaptation of the most famous of star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet (Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes); and Strictly Ballroom sees Scott, the consummate ballroom star (Paul Mercurio) join with the ugly duckling beginner Fran (Tara Morice). In all of his films you have this enormous heart and soul but it is most evident in Strictly Ballroom, possibly due to the fact that it is (as I mentioned earlier) less polished than his later films. I love the scenes on the roof where they are dancing in front of the Coca Cola sign but then that’s because I am a Baz Luhrmann fan and it’s a visual element he adapts and employs throughout his work.
The dance sequences are fast paced with frenetic editing and an over-the-top theatricality to them. The costumes are sublimely ridiculous – especially the women’s hair and makeup! But then it was made at the start of the 1990s when the excess of the 1980s was still an influence. The dancing is fabulous and thanks to Strictly Come Dancing (BBC, 2004 – ) I now recognize many of the dance styles and moves. Having said that the whole film seems cheaper than Strictly Come Dancing which is extremely well constructed and elegant. Music is equally as important here as the dancing … obviously as you can’t have dancing without music! Luhrmann tells the story through the dancing, especially the emotional moments … another trait he goes on to use later in his career (language in Romeo and Juliet; music and songs in Moulin Rouge)
Luhrmann employs a kind of documentary feel to parts of the film. We are introduced to the core characters through direct interviews to the camera with subtitles informing us of their relationship to Scott, the male protagonist. The characters, like the costumes, are ridiculous and extreme but totally fit in the world that Luhrmann is presenting. While the main focus is the romance developing between Fran and Scott there is also the sub plot of the hidden history of his family. “Its knowing evocation of what it means and costs to be both a dreamer and an outcast makes the couple’s heart-stopping finale a lump-in-the-throat triumph.” (810) The romance between Fran and Scott develops slowing and plays out through dance – the Rumba, widely recognized as the dance of love, and then the Paso Doble. The film also contains the obligatory make over and reveal that underneath the facade of the ugly ducking is a beautiful woman waiting to emerge. The climax of the film is moving but at the same time expected – everything was leading up to that moment and it’s rare that a film will finish on a sad or melancholy note. While I rarely watch Strictly Ballroom (preferring to watch Moulin Rouge or Romeo and Juliet, both of which rank fairly high up in my favourite movies) you can see glimpses of the genius visual style Luhrmann has developed.