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Take the Lead (9/10)

by Tony Medley

If ever a film has been victimized by dismal PR, this is the one. I had a negative attitude towards it going in. I didn’t go to a screening. Having seen the trailer and the display ads, I thought I was going to dislike it because it looked to me as if it was going to be victimized by its star, who was obviously not a dancer.

The trailer shows Antonio Banderas allegedly doing the tango. The faux dancing in “Chicago” wasn’t enough to keep it from being an entertaining movie. But I didn’t like the dishonest PR in which Richard Gere was represented as “doing his own dancing.” I doubted that, because a dancing Gere was never onscreen in one cut for more than a second or two.  A year later I understood Gere to admit in an interview I saw that he couldn’t dance a lick. It was all legerdemain. There was very little real dancing in “Chicago.”

So I was ready for Antonio Banderas, apparently a non-dancer, shown as a dancer. The problem with the promotion is that it’s advertised as a ballroom dancing movie, but there is very little dancing in it. It’s more a feel-good “Blackboard Jungle,” loosely based on the true story of Pierre Dulaine who taught ballroom dancing to underprivileged children and changed their lives. Alas, the filmmakers changed the students from the grammar school children Dulaine actually taught, to high school teens, apparently to get more conflict into the film.

I also didn’t like the idea that the movie had to be about competition. If there’s one thing that shouldn’t be competitive, it’s dancing. We dance for our own enjoyment, not to try to prove that we’re “better” than everyone else. Dancing and keeping time to the music should be their own reward. Why does everything have to be competitive, with winners and losers? There should be no losers in dancing.

In addition, the cinematography is atrocious. Although most of the classic Astaire-Rogers dances were filmed with multiple takes, the dancing was not marred by quick cuts. Rather, we saw Fred and Ginger glide around the floor in long takes that showcased the beauty, fun, and rhythm of ballroom dancing. And not only with Ginger; just as an example, there is a beautiful tap dancing sequence of Fred and Eleanor Powell in “Broadway Melody of 1940” that was a two minute forty second take without a cut. What dancing there is in “Take the Lead” is shown through “Chicago”-like quick cuts, each lasting only a few seconds, which depletes the enjoyment of the dancing to almost zero. Too bad there is more influence from “Chicago” and its quick cuts which disguise non-dancing actors than the 1930s cinematography of David Abel and choreography of Hermes Pan and their long takes of real dancers.

But despite the fact that there is very little dancing, even though that’s what you see in the trailer, that it is presented as competitive, and that the facts are stretched enormously, this is still a highly entertaining movie with competent acting. When they tell us that the film is “based” on a true story, they were only hinting at the truth. “Very loosely based” would be more accurate.

I wouldn’t object to the casting of Banderas in the role of Dulaine in this film, even though he is not a dancer, because he is an excellent actor, if only they would advertise the film for what it is, rather than representing as what it is not, a movie with lots of ballroom dancing. The basis of the story is that Dulaine is a professional dancer who volunteers to teach ballroom dancing to high school students. Predictably, he is greeted with negativism by the principal of the high school, Alfre Woodard (who certainly doesn’t look 54 years old!), and the students to whom she assigns him. In order to create the conflict, they are students who have been condemned to detention as punishment. Since none of the faculty wants to oversee the detention, in order to get him off her back Woodard tells Dulaine that he can try to teach them his dancing. To the surprise of nobody who goes to the movies, the students react hostilely to Dulaine’s idea.

Banderas only tries two dances, first a tango, then a waltz. Both are easy. If you can count to five, you can tango, slow-slow-quick-quick-slow. No sweat. Even though the waltz is as easy, in ¾ time, slow-quick-quick, slow-quick-quick, very few people actually do the waltz when it is played. When I’m on the dance floor and a waltz is played, it always amazes me to see people stumbling around, ignoring the beat and just sort of doing an out-of-tempo fox trot. The most enjoyable pastime I’ve had in my life is pickup basketball. Number 2 is waltzing with a good partner who can follow me. This doesn’t happen much any more because they just don’t often play waltzes.

Anyway, even though both dances are easy, it looked to me that Antonio is doubled, at least for the tango. When there are long shots of the two dancers, his face is always conveniently obscured, either by shooting him from behind, or having his arm in front of his face. Although the body looks like Banderas, I suspect that Antonio was relaxing in his trailer when the dancing was shot.

Fortunately, there is just not enough dancing by Banderas for that to ruin this movie. As I said, it might be about teaching dancing, but there is very little actual dancing. It’s Dulaine’s story, and it is superbly acted by everyone.

The script by Dianne Houston creates the requisite amount of tension, and, given the story line, the film is ably directed by Liz Friedlander.  However, ballroom dancing, which is the basis of the story, is given short shrift throughout, and especially at the end when the group erupts into hip-hop rubbish that is to ballroom dancing as a rat is to a swan. Ballroom dancing is beautiful, rhythmic, and fun. But you wouldn’t know it by watching this movie.

With a running time of one minute under two hours, despite the lack of dancing and disappointing failure to present ballroom dancing as beautiful and fun, this held my interest throughout and passed the watch test with flying colors. I didn’t look at it once, and was even sorry to see the movie end.

April 15, 2006