Friday, January 5, 2007

Take the Lead


More of a Follower

Pierre Dulaine did something truly remarkable. He introduced a ballroom dancing program to hundreds of New York City elementary school children, changing their lives for the better. This program has been chronicled in the acclaimed documentary, Mad Hot Ballroom. Now we get the fictionalized version of this story, Take the Lead, which is “inspired by true events.” Unfortunately, instead of using the actual story as the bulk of the film, we also get a heavy mixture of hip-hop, Dangerous Minds, and Romeo & Juliet. It’s as if writer Dianne Houston felt the source material wasn’t enough for a feature film, which is where the movie stumbles.

Ballroom dance instructor Pierre Dulaine (Antonio Banderas) is riding home on his bicycle when he comes across the hothead Rock (Rob Brown) vandalizing his school principal’s car. After letting him go, he decides to take an active interest in the troubled kids of the area, by volunteering his talents to teach ballroom dance at the local high school. The principal (Alfre Woodard) is skeptical to say the least, but assigns him to detention, expecting him to never come back. He does, however, and begins to show his cocky students how classical dance can teach them to respect themselves and those around them. But will they be ready for the big dance competition at the end of the year?

Take the Lead feels derivative in just about every way. We have the tough but wise instructor, delinquents who just need a little guidance, star-crossed lovers (the names Rock and Lahrette aren’t very subtle), one adult who completely opposes the teacher (along with the obligatory school board showdown), and the “big game” at the end. We’ve been to these places before, and while it’s not bad, it’s not very original either.

This is a dance movie, and the dancing here is good. All the kids are very talented, and there is one great scene where Dulaine brings in one of his professionals (Katya Virshilas), for a little object lesson. They perform an amazing (albeit over-edited) tango together that shows how incredibly sensual ballroom dance can be. That dance floors everyone in the room, as well as everyone in the theater--it’s the highlight of the film.

Another standout is Banderas as Dulaine. He is charming, smart, talented, and tenacious--all which play to Banderas’ strengths. A part like this is new for him, and I liked his portrayal. It is also a wise choice, expanding his pallete as an actor. Everyone else is fine (and Woodard is always fun to watch), but really don’t get much of an opportunity to shine. There is too much going on in Take the Lead, which dilutes the more interesting Banderas stuff.

With TV shows such as Dancing with the Stars creating a renewed interest in ballroom dance, the timing seems right for a feature film on the subject. Take the Lead tries to fill this apparent need, but can’t capitalize. If someone could make a whole film with the power and passion contained in that one scene of this movie--then you’d really have something.

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