Strictly Ballroom is remarkably the only film from Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Red Curtain’ Trilogy (Strictly Ballroom – 1992, Romeo & Juliet – 1996, Moulin Rouge – 2001) not to receive an Oscar nomination in any category. It did however garner numerous awards, plaudits and prizes at the Australian Film Institute Awards, the Golden Globes and at the BAFTAs. When the film went on general release in the UK in October 1992 it managed to break the characteristic ‘British Reserve’ by coaxing a more than polite burst of applause and cheers when the final credits began to roll – something I had never before witnessed in a British cinema.
The film opens with the subdued horns and trembling violins of Johann Strauss’ ‘On The Beautiful Blue Danube’, as a group of ballroom dancers in ‘white tie’ & tails escort their partners in slow motion to the dance floor. Chiffon billows beneath plumes of marabou which float and sway hypnotically like anemones in a gentle current… this is Ballroom. It’s refined. It’s graceful. It’s an illusion about to be swiftly crushed by the onscreen appearance of a maniacal Shirley Hastings screeching, “come on, a hundred!” like a Velociraptor in drag. If this wasn’t enough to jolt its audience to attention, the riotously comic sequence which unfolds will, with its rare and inventive mix of docu-style commentary, lurid kitsch with deftly handled slapstick served with a surprising garnish of sincerity.
The tale is a classic one. Scott (Paul Mercurio) is a young and brilliantly gifted dancer who has been training since he was six and is well on his way to becoming the next ‘Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Amateur Five Dance Latin American Champion’. But Scott, like so many young and gifted, decides to break free of the traditional constraints of the Dance Federation’s approved ‘steps’ and dances his own ‘flashy and crowd pleasing’ choreography. This unorthodox move not only loses him a guaranteed place in the finals, but also his waspish dancing partner Liz (Gia Carides). Seizing an open opportunity, which is essentially the motto at the heart of the film, Fran (Tara Morice) the resident ugly duckling and klutz at the dance studio where Scott rehearses, convinces him to partner her at the Pan-Pacific despite being an amateur herself with only three weeks to train.
It’s all you can do to stifle a squeal of delight at the sheer chutzpah of their plan, the process of which yields the inevitable love story which has been blatantly lying in wait… “We’re telling a story. The rhumba is the dance of love,” Scott pre-emptively states.
But as a hapless Lysander once said, the course of true love never did run smooth and just about everyone puts a pot hole (or two) in the path of Fran and Scott’s journey. Heading the offensive is Scott’s mother, the wonderfully desperate Shirley Hastings (Pat Thomson) who has been living vicariously through her son’s triumphs and is determined to force him back into the Dance Federation mould. Shirley gathers a posse of allies in her tooth and nail fight to reform Scott’s ‘silliness’. He is met with a relentless barrage of opposition from Wayne his best friend, Liz his ex-partner, Les his dance teacher, and even the imposing Dance Federation President, Barry Fife who corners Scott in a sinister scene citing a dark family secret from the past which threatens to crush Scott’s dreams.
The very existence of this secret is what binds the story and drives many of its characters actions and it crucially lays the emotional foundations for one of the most satisfying conclusions to a movie ever.
Everything about Strictly Ballroom is vibrant; the strong lighting and use of extreme close-ups, the mix of traditional and modern music, the heart pounding choreography, the vivid colours of the sets and costumes, and the energy of characters themselves, who often flirt with caricature but are never so outlandish that they become unbelievable. Luhrmann manages to achieve something with this film which is quite remarkable. He delivers a laugh-out-loud comedy about the world of ballroom dance with all its big hair and sequins yet never once mocks its characters or the world they inhabit. It’s a film made with love and respect and that is why it’s so gloriously triumphant, because despite it’s eccentricity, it’s never anything but sincere.
Strictly Ballroom is a tour de force love story full of energy and passion for life and is possibly Luhrmann’s finest film to date. With the Oscars looming on the horizon it is probably worthwhile noting that Strictly Ballroom received a fifteen minute standing ovation when it was screened at the Cannes Film Festival, a prize surely worth more than any golden statuette.