Baz Luhrmann may be best known for his fever-dream musical collages (Moulin Rouge!) and maximalist adaptations of classic literary works (1996’s Romeo + Juliet, 2013’s The Great Gatsby). His first film, a cinematic version of his own stage play, has all the feathers and sparkle that would go on to define his style, but on a much smaller scale.
Strictly Ballroom is a 1992 romantic comedy set in the center of an Australian competitive-ballroom-dancing scene. Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) is the scion of a dancing family, chafing against restrictive competition rules. His long-time partner, Liz (Gia Carides), joins up with another dancer after Scott loses a competition by dancing his own rebellious, interpretive steps. So Scott partners with a shy, unconventional novice dancer, Fran (Tara Morice). Her warmth, enthusiasm, and dance-heavy Spanish heritage (yes) add a real spark to Scott’s routine both on and off the dance floor. Will they win the big competition? Will they fall in love? Will an ex-partner almost ruin everything in the third act?
It’s Cinderella meets Dirty Dancing with more sequins and more sweetness. Luhrmann genuinely adores his dancing stars almost as much as he loves his big musical numbers. His characters are reasonably one-note — the cocky dancer, the catty girlfriend, the sweet plain girl with the thick glasses who will obviously be a stunner after the makeover montage. Sometimes they border on stereotype. Fran’s Spanish family, for example, comes straight out of whatever the Australian equivalent of Central Casting is. Both the director and the actors, however, navigate the space between winking camp and melodrama with such affection that it’s hard to hold the film’s shortcomings against it.
Luhrmann considered Strictly Ballroom the first of what he called the “Red Curtain Trilogy,” which later included Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! The seeds of those much larger movies are here in the brilliant color palette, the choreography, and a love story played big for the cheap seats. But there’s also a bit of grit to Strictly Ballroom. It’s a first-time, inexpensive indie feature, starring actors you’ve never heard of, against a background of unglamorous Australian middle-class kitsch from a soon-to-be-blockbuster director on the precipice of global celebrity.
In the 27 years since Strictly Ballroom was released, ballroom dancing has enjoyed a revival, owing largely to Dancing with the Stars turning cameras back on feather-gowned celebrities doing the tango on national television. Even now that the waltz is back on primetime TV, where a bunch of real-life Scott Hastings guide former politicians, retired athletes, and ex-soap stars through winning routines, Luhrmann’s first film has aged well. Ours is an age of spectacle — over-the-top performances, shiny things, and, every now and then, a little self awareness. Why not let Luhrmann take you for a turn around the floor?
The Hendersonville Film Society presents Strictly Ballroom at 2pm on Sunday, April 14, in the auditorium at Lake Pointe Landing in Hendersonville, behind the Epic Cinemas. For more information, call 828-697-7310.