In his debut film Strictly Ballroom, infamous razzle-dazzler Baz Luhrmann set out the themes and styles that he’s returned to throughout his career. In it, the cheesy-glitzy, hidebound world of competitive ballroom dancing is rocked when champion-in-the-making Scott Hastings dances his own flashy “non-regulation” steps in competition. This sends his mother (a former competitor who has trained Scott to be king of the samba) into palpitations. His dancing partner leaves him and he can’t find another, until Fran, a frumpy beginner, offers to dance his moves with him at a major competition. (She does insist that his moves would be even better if he “kept it simpler” and danced “from the heart.”) In keeping with Luhrmann’s worldview, romance and creativity blossom in tandem, and conclude in a wham-bam finale of theatrical expressivity.
What’s particularly notable about Strictly Ballroom is how closely it predicts what Luhrmann would realize on a more spectacular level with his most recent film, Elvis. At the center, there’s a young talent whose rocking moves and musicality shake and break the rules of their art forms. The narrative arc of artistic development argues that musical brilliance comes from authenticity and the embrace of musical “roots.” (Fran’s family is Spanish, and she and Scott really find their groove when they incorporate traditional dance steps into their routine.) The most striking commonality is in its representation of scheming, ruthless gatekeepers and impresarios who stifle real talent. Some of the close shots of the sweaty, bulbous face of Barry Fife, the snide huckster who presides over the dance association, seem to map directly onto Luhrnann’s representation of Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’s oily leech of a manager.
At least until the better-than-expected reception of Elvis, there was a reading of Luhrmann’s career that prized Strictly Ballroom as his own masterpiece of youthful exuberance, followed by a slow slide into overblown aesthetic decadence. (The idea is that Luhrmann’s filmmaking was best when it was “simpler” and “from the heart,” before massive budgets gave free rein to his worst excesses.) This is not quite accurate. Despite hIs unwavering commitment to naive earnestness, Luhrmann has always liked touches of comedy and ironic undercutting. This is actually the dominant mood in Strictly Ballroom, which frames its artistic-romantic story with Christopher Guest–style mockumentary. Scott’s naysayers give pearl-clutching talking-head interviews. (The comic tone is least successful with the running commentary by Scott’s younger siblings, two mugging moppets that tip the film into smarm.) Though this frame undoubtedly adds to the film, you could wish for just a few minutes more of the sweeping romance of his later work.
Luhrmann’s artistic credo–his unique vision and sometimes his downfall–is that genuine artistry can be represented through artificial means. If spangly split screens can somehow get at Elvis’s elementally sexy charisma, Strictly Ballroom uses more basic techniques that combine the straightforward and the over-the-top. He clearly takes great pleasure in a lavish treatment of the spray-tanned and sequined glamor of the ballroom dancing scene, but there is great power in the smaller but still flashy details he adds to Scott and Fran’s scenes. (The full-body shots let us appreciate the beauty of the dancing.)
He can pull powerful emotional moments from small embellishments, like a close-up of Fran’s feet tapping in anticipation, wearing tube socks with her glittery gold heels. In the film’s climactic moment, when the music is cut at the big competition, Fran and Scott dance in complete silence, and it’s absolutely stunning. The moment that sticks the most, though, is of Fran and Scott dancing their steps “from the heart” on a rooftop, with a sparkly Coca-Cola advert behind them. It’s a quintessential Luhrmann image: the purity of art and love against a background of kitschy glitz. He would play with it more in his subsequent work, particularly Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge. These, along with Strictly Ballroom, make up what Luhrmann has called his “Red Curtain” trilogy, all expressive explorations of the possibilities of theatricality in cinema.
Yet Strictly Ballroom sticks out in the Red Curtain trilogy because of its concern with middle age. Luhrmann usually cares mostly for the absolute sincerity and emotional intensity of youth. But here he gives almost equal attention to the backstory of Scott’s parents, whose own disappointments and regrets about their past dancing career have shaped their hopes for Scott. When Scott first learns about his parents’ past, Luhrmann tells the story through a tableau reenactment that’s also strangely affecting in its cheesiness. Pat Thomson, as Scott’s mother, gets right into Luhrmann’s groove: she’s a caricature of a prim and squawking stage mom, but can play the sincere notes when the role requires. Barry Otto also shines as Scott’s father, a crumpled mild-mannered man who turns out to be full of surprises.
It’s really these touches that make Strictly Ballroom worth revisiting today. Luhrmann, for all his excesses, is seen as remarkably consistent in his art. While Strictly Ballroom lays out a roadmap for his filmmaking career, it also reminds us of the ways he can surprise us.