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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

eFilmcritic Archive: "Take The Lead" (2006)

A good dance movie should make you want to go dancing, whether you can or not. The success of most dance movies usually depends on that feeling, regardless of how silly the plot may be. It could have an absurd, non-dance-related plot (“White Nights”), no plot (“Breakin’”) or it could be a sad character study that actually condemns the lifestyle associated with said dance (“Saturday Night Fever”). It hardly matters. If the characters have energy, grace and style—and the director clearly conveys this—a dance movie can sometimes win the heart of a devout cynic. Unfortunately, “Take the Lead” didn’t make me want to dance at all. If anything, it made me want to watch “Save The Last Dance.”

“Take The Lead” simply doesn’t flow. It remains stuck within the confines of a conventional storyline that always follows and never leads. It tries so hard to do everything every other formulaic dance movie did before it, but without the conviction. It feels shoddy, choppy, forced and thoroughly clumsy. It’s a somewhat fictionalized version of the 2004 documentary “Mad Hot Ballroom,” but this movie falls into the same trap as that movie, by having too many characters and not enough payoff. It tries to be everything to everybody, leaving no demographic unturned.

Antoni Banderas plays Pierre Dulaine, a ballroom dance instructor who bets a high school principal (Alfre Woodard) that he can teach troubled kids the art of ballroom dancing. She, of course, remains skeptical, but lets him try, if only for her own amusement. Dulaine gets the usual stock characters necessary for this kind of movie: The stoic, troubled kid whose parents are alcoholics (which is why he prefers to live in the school’s boiler room), the troubled girl whose mom is a prostitute, the white kid who thinks he’s black, the Latino who thinks he’s Casanova, the overweight black kid who thinks he’s too large to be a graceful dancer and the little white girl who brings him out of his shell.

There’s really nothing more for me to add. Late in the game, as the students prepare for the ballroom competition, the movie feels the need to bring in a WASPy villain dancer who tries to put these kids in their place. But that’s about it, really. You can put the pieces together yourself and know where they go. This isn’t rocket science, or even a simple two-step. The closest thing the movie comes to innovation is the idea that hip-hop dancing can somehow merge with ballroom dancing, thereby reinventing the artform.

Unfortunately, the movie has no real belief in this. The concept feels like an afterthought, or as a way of engaging young people so they’ll stay in their seats. Director Liz Friedlander and screenwriter Dianne Houston don’t let the story clearly demonstrate this idea. It’s a one-off scene that comes and goes and is so poorly edited and conceived that the audience can’t help but feel lost. Again, this shouldn’t really come as a surprise and I’m sure there will be people who go to this movie for the dancing and not the plot.

So, how is the dancing? I think it’s okay, but I’m not entirely sure. The movie has been edited in a way where I’m not really allowed to enjoy the dancing for what it is. There are way too many cuts between the dancing and the expressions on the spectator's faces. Last year, director Susan Stroman was criticized for simply filming the stage version of The Producers” and not doing anything with the camera. I thought it was the right choice. Because of her minimalist style (or lack of style), I was able to enjoy that wonderful dance sequence between Matthew Broderick and Uma Thurman as I was meant to enjoy them, with as few interruptions as possible. There can be such a thing as too much coverage and this movie proves that.

“Take The Lead” desperately wants you to cheer at the end, but you should really just leave, or just save the $9-12 and take a dance lesson yourself. You’ll get more out of it and you’ll get some fresh air, too. You don’t need to watch whitey get nervous when Latinos and African Americans enter the ballroom for the film’s finale. Golan and Globus already covered that decades ago when “Breakin’”s Shabba-Doo and Boogaloo Shrimp went to the cocktail party in full breakdance gear. It was funny then, but it’s not funny now.

The only thing funny about this is the title and the poster’s tagline. “Take the Lead. Never follow.” All ballroom dancers know that it is necessary for one to take the lead while the other follows. If we all took the lead and didn’t follow, we’d be smacking each other around on that dance floor and it would get ugly. Hey, there’s an idea. “Fight Club” meets “Dirty Dancing.” “I’ve Had the Time of My Life” meets “Where is My Life?” “Take the Lead” may not make you want to go dancing when it’s over, but it might make you want to write a better movie.

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