Film Review: Strictly Ballroom (1992)
The heat wave this past weekend was insufferable and all I wanted to do was go into a movie theater, casually catch a screening of Tag, and relax in the cool air conditioning. But no. Everyone else seemed to have the same exact idea because when I showed up to reserve my seat with my checked-in Moviepass for this super old B-movie, nearly every single seat was taken. Alas, all I did the next day was re-watch Baz Luhrmann’s classic Strictly Ballroom on repeat, and just praying for a simpler time when climate change and stupid politicians weren’t destroying the world. All of this is just a weird and round-about way of saying, I love Strictly Ballroom (L-O-L just stay with me here).
Most are probably more familiar with Baz Luhrmann’s work than they think, and actually many people likely grew up watching his films! From his Red Curtain Trilogy that included Strictly Ballroom (1992), Romeo + Juliet (1996), and Moulin Rouge! (2001) to his most recent work with Netflix on The Get Down (2016), Luhrmann is definitely known for his out-of-this-world spectacular visuals and simple but alluring storytelling (esp. in romance). Of course the combination of these two factors did also culminate in the awful The Great Gatsby (2013), but you can’t deny the visuals were clearly the best part. But what sets Strictly Ballroom apart from the rest of his filmography is that it merely showcases the beginning sprinklings of his penchant for spectacular and glamorous aesthetics and balances it out with an ooey-gooey epicenter of heartwarming (and tropey) romance.
Strictly Ballroom is a hot beautiful mess of stereotypes and cliches as it follows Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio), who’s a ballroom dancer trying to establish his own dance style against the face of the Dance Federation, and Fran (Tara Morice), the ugly duckling who takes lessons at Scott’s mom’s dance studio. They come together as unlikely dance partners, to the dismay of those around them, to bring about a shift in the strict regulations of the Dance Federation led by a Mr. Barry Fife (who is the spitting image of Donald Trump honestly). And in the process, Fran transforms into a beautiful swan and Scott molds his ego to learn different dance styles and also fall in love. I know, very tropey, very old-school, but this was the 90’s, and I love a good cookie cutter rom-com.
One constant characteristic among all of Luhrmann’s films is the idea of camp. And wow this movie is super camp in all the best ways. It essentially begins with Scott competing in a ballroom with a glitter-tastic, butt-clenching outfit, and his isn’t even the most shiny one there. Each of the characters are extreme caricatures, from Barry Fife to Scott’s parents to Fran herself, who probably originated pre-makeover Mia from The Princess Diaries. But within this very high-energy movie are moments of stillness and subtlety that, by mere juxtaposition, are easily some of the film’s best scenes. Namely, my favorite scene is the one in which, after Scott proves that he’s a dick, he and Fran dance a sort of slow waltz (or maybe a wango?) behind the curtains of one of the dance competitions. It’s infused with hues of red and pink and I swear they put a steam machine in there because the tension between Scott and Fran is THICC. Iconically one of my favorite cinematic dance sequences, and set to the tune of Doris Day’s Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps. It’s just perfection!
Romance shit aside, I also think Strictly Ballroom, alongside other films that came out around this time, is a great case study in examining the transnational style of cinema that occurred throughout the 90’s and beyond. This is an Australian film with a distinctly Australian style of camp but includes several motifs that push not only this film but the future films of Luhrmann’s Red Curtain Trilogy into the North American/European hemispheres - take, for example, the prevalence of the glittery Coca Cola/L’Amour sign that can be seen in all three films of the trilogy). At the same time, this particular film deals heavily with Scott learning parts of Fran’s Spanish heritage (in a way that may or may not be construed as being Othered). And it is Fran’s Spanish Paso Doble that allows her and Scott to triumph into the happily ever after ending of this fairy tale story.
On that note, I love this movie so much, I even made my own movie poster for it!