“Take the Lead” is to “Mad Hot Ballroom” as “Music of the Heart” was to “Small Wonders,” another tale of an unusual program to help disadvantaged school kids turned into a formulaic, sappily uplifting Hollywood product.
In Wes Craven’s 1999 movie, a documentary about unlikely youngsters molded into a violin orchestra by a dedicated volunteer was turned into a vehicle for Meryl Streep. Here a program to teach older, troubled kids a sense of discipline and mutual respect through classes in ballroom dancing becomes one for Antonio Banderas, playing a genteel dance instructor who chooses to undertake the project almost by accident. Suffice it to say the mutation is even worse this time around the floor.
Banderas plays Pierre Dulaine, the real-life figure who inspired “Ballroom.” But in this cobbled-together script by Dianne Houston he’s depicted as a stock figure–a dance teacher drawn to an inner-city school after he sees a student from it (Rob Brown) vandalize a car, which turns out to belong to Principal Augustine James (Alfre Woodard), who had earlier ejected the simmering young man from a local dance. Dulaine, taken by the utter lack of courtesy on display on the campus, offers his services as a dance instructor, believing that teaching students ballroom steps will enhance not only their sense of self-worth but also their manners, and the administrator, unable to find a teacher willing to preside over detention, gives him the job as a joke. But, wouldn’t you know it, Dulaine eventually connects with the disparate kids (a convenient cross-section of the student population, representing fat and thin, geeky and not, black, white and Hispanic, etc.), including ultimately the resistant Rock and his Juliet, LaRhette (Yaya DaCosta), who just happens to be the sister of a boy who died, along with his bro, in a gang altercation; and despite the hostility of the obligatory by-the-book teacher who thinks it a waste of time, Dulaine’s work wins the passionate support of principal, parents and students and does indeed “make a difference.” Oh, and did I mention that the snooty students at Dulaine’s dance school bad-mouth the high schoolers, providing another bunch of doubters to be properly shown up, and that one of them–the shy, fumbling one who comes to the school to dance with the poor kids–proves an ugly duckling? Or that Dulaine himself finds a kind of salvation from the class himself, finally coming to terms with the death of his beloved wife? Or that everything ends with a big city-wide dance competition? And that one character must decide between it and a life of crime, and the high schoolers will come up against those snobs who earlier dissed them?
Could any of this be more contrived and formulaic? “Take the Lead” may indeed be based on a true story, but not an instant of it rings true. That’s mostly the result of the script, of course, and the fact that Banderas glides through his part with a slickness that reveals nary a hint of emotional content beneath it (his considerable terpsichorean ability, and the elegant figure he cuts in fine clothes, will be sufficient compensation for some). But much of the blame must rest on the shoulders of first-time director Liz Friedlander, who shows little sense of timing or style. The excessive two-hour running time is a sign that her pacing is dilatory, and the overdrawn performances of most of the young cast–except for Brown, who’s surprisingly flat and dispirited–have to be chalked up, at least in part, to her inexperience in getting the best out of her actors. Even Woodard chews the scenery overmuch, which isn’t usually her style. The production, however, is a solid one, with mostly solid cinematography by Alex Nepomniaschy, though he and editor Robert Ivison seriously disappoint with “Flashdance”-style cutting that masks the actual moves of the kids, leaving Banderas looking like the only real hoofer in sight.
Audiences extremely tolerant of prefabricated uplift may enjoy this movie, especially if “Ballroom” was off their radar. For others the proper directive might be: take a hike.