Jaime Escalante inspires his students to stand and deliver the truth... Oh, wait. Wrong film. Louanne Johnson inspires her dangerous minds... Damn. John Keating takes a job at a prep school and teachers his students to seize the... Not right either. Antonio Banderas joins a long, oh, so very long, list of actors and actresses playing `inspirational teachers' who help `their students deal with troubling life lessons'. The difference in "Take the Lead" is that Banderas is playing a real life man. No, wait. That isn't different. Okay, he is dealing with a diverse collection of students who have trouble at school. But we think it might just be a result of problems at home. Darn, that's old hat for this genre as well. Wait! I've got it. He teaches them to dance. That is pretty much the only difference in this new entry in a tried and tired genre. And don't even get me started on the whole `high-school coach inspires his students to reach for the brass ring" sub-genre.
I wonder if there is someone in Hollywood whose job is to determine "Okay, I think we are going to make `Ballroom Dancing' the next big thing." How else can we explain the sometimes inexplicable shifts in Hollywood? After years of absence, westerns became more predominant for a short period. Then musicals. I suspect we might see a few more films about two men in love, due to the recent success of a recently taboo subject in film.
The 1995 Japanese film "Shall We Dance?" was an enjoyable look at a repressed businessman finding a little joy in his life as he took ballroom dance lessons, something very foreign to his culture. From the moment it hit multiplexes, the original Japanese version had Hollywood remake stamped all over it. Ten years later, the American version, starring Richard Gere, Jennifer Lopez and Susan Sarandon appeared. Perhaps a bit too early, because it flopped. Last year also saw a very popular documentary, "Mad Hot Ballroom", about elementary school kids in New York who compete in ballroom dancing competitions. Then "Dancing with the Stars" premiered on television. Its second season recently ended and the show is a bonafide hit giving D-List celebrities and soap stars (or are they the same thing?) a second chance at stardom. Now, in two weeks time, we have two different films with ballroom dancing at their core. Neither is very good, but for very different reasons. Perhaps, we are still waiting for THE film that will bring the dancing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers back to the limelight.
If you are saying to yourself "Hey, I read part of this in thornhill's review of `Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing and Charm School' review" you are very observant. Both films share a common theme and also a remarkably similar speech about the virtues of learning to ballroom dance.
Pierre Dulaine (Antonio Banderas) runs a new dance studio in New York City. The studio has a devoted roster of exclusive students, but still struggles. Pierre rides his bike home one evening and witnesses a very angry student, Rock (Rob Brown) vandalizing the car of his high school principal. The next day, Pierre offers to help out at the high school. The principal (Alfre Woodard) can't find anyone to supervise Detention, so she figures Pierre is a good alternative. Naturally. On his first day, Pierre meets the `diverse' group of troubled students. They are a hip hop crowd and can't stand any of his traditional ballroom music. A couple of days later, Pierre asks a student to stop by and they dance the sensuous tango. Now that he has their attention, he can teach them all about life. Hooray.
"Take The Lead", directed by Liz Friedlander (who appears to have gotten her start in... wait for it... music videos) and based on the true life story of Pierre Dulaine, is made according to such a tried and true formula that if you are interested, you can certainly wait for the DVD.
Banderas is earnest in his portrayal of this dancing teacher. He seems to want to help with the students and his method of reaching them is through dance. That's what he knows best. But we don't really get an idea of why. Why does he want to help out these high school kids? He doesn't have a kid in their class. What makes him think he can teach them ballroom dancing? Banderas has a funny scene when he first shows up at the high school. A student in trouble, sent to the principal's office, is amazed that Dulaine opens the door for every woman to leave the office. Of course, the women are touched by the courtesy. A moment later, when Dulaine is meeting with the Principal, we spot the student opening the door for girls. It's a funny moment. And there are some good moments in the film...
...The film opens with quick shots of two different groups preparing for two very different dances. We see shots of Banderas and his dance students getting ready for a formal dance, putting on their tuxedos and dresses, shining their shoes, putting on their cumber bunds. These are intercut with shots of the group of high school kids preparing for a school dance, putting on jeans, t-shirts, bling, making sure their jeans ride low, showing underwear. The music accompanying both changes in the middle, initially, we are listening to a more modern take on ballroom music and then it changes to a modern hip-hop. The action moves to the two dances and they couldn't be more different...
...To get the student's attention, Dulaine asks a student to come and perform the tango with him. He doesn't tell the students beforehand, as soon as Morgan, his dance student, arrives she captures their attention with her beauty and confidence. When they begin to perform the tango, they capture the attention of all the students, boys and girls alike...
There are a few more moments like this. Perhaps the best moment is a tango performed during the final dance competition between three of the students in Dulaine's class. Yes, three of the students.
But to get to these points, we have to sit through some of the most basic, overused stereotypes in `high school' films. Dulaine's students are a `wacky' cast of individual troublemakers. From the troubled, silent young man who secretly is trying to make a better life for himself (Rob Brown), to a hip-hop Asian student who finds himself irresistible to women, to the male Caucasian student with corn rolls in his hair, to the Caucasian girl, who attends Dulaine's Dance Academy, but feels more at home with the inner-city kids in his detention class. Can't a film like this contain some interesting, unusual characters? Something new? Instead, it always seems like the screenwriters of these films use a computer program to plug in these characters. Search "Wacky", "Troubled", "High School". See list. Add to screenplay.
The dance scenes are fun, well-shot and full of energy, but they are few and far between. In an early scene with his detention students, Dulaine watches them start to do their more comfortable, more common hip hop dancing. He is amazed. But this doesn't really lead to anything such as a new form of ballroom dancing. At one point, they start to mix his ballroom music into a hip hope groove. Again, it doesn't really lead to anything. Instead of being innovative, creating new music or dance trends, the film piles on the stock characters, their familiar drama, and the sappy, Hollywood ending this type of project requires.
It is disappointing that the filmmakers couldn't figure out a way to create a new fusion of dance. The film practically telegraphs that this is going to happen, yet it never does.
I have had mixed luck with "Sneak Previews". On the one hand, you know that a studio would never hold a sneak preview for a film that they know is bad (they generally mark those by not allowing film critics to see them before opening day). If they are going to the trouble of a sneak preview, they want to build word of mouth, good word of mouth, so it seems like these films should be the cream of the crop. But they aren't. They are the films that Hollywood loves to make. Routine, mechanical and full of stock characters.