Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom (1992) is strong evidence that more money doesn’t make you a better filmmaker
“Pam Short’s broken both her legs, and I wanna dance with you.”
And with that, Ken Railings steals Scott Hastings’s disgruntled dance partner, Liz, forcing Scott to begin the search for a new partner. Scott is a rebel who refuses to dance “federation steps” – a restrictive system of dance competition judging, limiting the dancers’ creativity. Scott wants to dance his own steps.
Thus we are thrust into the eccentric world of Australian ballroom dance competition. Our guide: Baz Luhrmann, a filmmaker whose style is so vibrant it literally bursts off the screen. The colors are outrageous, the lighting dramatic, and the editing in-your-face. The tools of style at Luhrmann’s disposal are inexpensive – the film cost roughly AUD 3 million (about USD 3.8 million today) and stars no-one anyone outside of Australia has ever heard of.
That is not to discredit the film’s cast. Luhrmann knows how to wring confident and precise performances from his entire crew – including minor characters – and especially his lead, Paul Mercurio. A lesser filmmaker would have focused too much on the visual elements, leaving the characters and story by the wayside. Perhaps that’s what happened later in Luhrmann’s career, when big-name actors and multi-million dollar spectacle seemed to get the best of him. He was made to direct a grungy, grainy, held-together-by-tape movie. He is Scott – a talented man frustrated by the limitations imposed upon him, but determined to realize his vision. Actually, I doubt Luhrmann was ever frustrated during filming. The film has such a positive, clean spirit to it, without an ounce of cynicism. It looks like it was a hell of a lot of fun to make.
Strictly Ballroom has a beautiful, simple story, but the style is what makes the film so much fun. The dance sequences are sweeping and smooth, especially once Spanish flamenco dancing is incorporated to the film. Through the character of Fran, we depart from the cutthroat world of competitive Australian ballroom dancing and enter the Spanish dancing tradition. Fran’s Spanish family teaches Scott to channel his rebellious tendencies into a different form of dance – el pasodoble – which emphasizes rhythm, precision, and emotion over “jazzy” flourishes. These sequences provide Luhrmann with an opportunity to sharpen the film down, to contrast the artifice of professional competition with the intimate setting of a family gathered around a fire. His directorial instincts are spot on here, giving the audience room to breathe, slow down, and feel the rhythm. We see Scott’s feet at first stumbling around, then following Fran’s father’s lead. Luhrmann literally puts us in his shoes. If you don’t want to jump to your feet when Love is in the Air plays over the end credits, you don’t have a soul.
But Luhrmann’s once promising career has taken a somewhat disappointing turn. His style never disappeared – on the contrary, it often became his primary asset – as the budgets of his films got bigger, and the movies more ambitious. Moulin Rouge! (2000) is a sloppy, at-times embarrassing pop romp which I’m sure Ewan McGregor’s singing coach would rather forget. We all agree that Romeo + Juliet (1996) was just weird. Australia (2008) and The Great Gatsby (2013) were somewhat less than the sum of their impressive parts. I would never suggest that Luhrmann has devolved to turning out uninspired, generic, bland material. His films are always, if nothing else, interesting to watch, and he’s got a proven track record of financial success. But the sheer creativity of Ballroom is where we see him working within severe limitations, relying on guts and the drive to make something awe-inspiring. The energy he coaxes out of every scene in that film is more heartfelt, more satisfying, and more daring than anything he did later in his career. It’s an impressive film which provides the template to making an indie gem – have a simple story, and stretch your resources to tell that story as hard as you can.
I’ll see his next movie, to be sure. Luhrmann should be proud of his film career. But with Ballroom, it feels like there’s nothing between the storyteller and the audience. We react to every push and pull. He shakes your chair, telling you to “get up! Dance! Listen to the rhythm! Don’t be scared!” And it behooves us to listen to him. I’m a miserable dancer myself, but every time I’m lucky enough to revisit Strictly Ballroom, something inside me wants to dance. It’s the way dancing is portrayed in the film. It just looks so cool.