As Baz Luhrmann’s biggest hit, the lavish adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, continues to play in theaters worldwide, his first film, Strictly Ballroom, arrives on Blu-ray. The Great Gatsby has sparked further debate about Luhrmann and his team’s lush, high-melodrama, anachronism-friendly style, and while Strictly Ballroom doesn’t exactly offer a drastically different version of that style—it’s Luhrmann through and through—his younger fans will probably appreciate the novelty of seeing his vision in miniature.
Though not based (however loosely) on literature or history, Strictly Ballroom (Luhrmann’s only contemporary-set film) is no less archetypal than his other work. Indeed, in its treatment of the well-worn showbiz-competition hybrid, it’s arguably even more steeped in cliché. Scott (Paul Mercurio) is a talented dancer poised to win the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Amateur Championships. But Scott yearns to break free from the competition’s strict set of approved dance moves, and do something more original.
His dance partner drops him, and gosh, who could he find to dance with on such short notice? Certainly not the awkward, bespectacled Fran (Tara Morice), who we’ve seen admiring him from afar. There’s no way such a fumbling but good-hearted amateur could be expected to match up with a handsome, skilled dancer.
Wait, scratch that: Fran is exactly who Scott will dance with, because Strictly Ballroom is exactly that kind of movie. It’s the kind of movie where the hero actually turns to the ugly-duckling girl and asks: “Can you dance without those?” about her big-framed glasses. It’s the kind of movie where a ballroom dancing competition is run by small-minded autocrats, and where only the approval of an audience can open minds.
On this last point, Luhrmann’s taste for crowd-pleasing becomes explicit. One of the stick-in-the-mud antagonists sneers, regarding Scott’s popularity with the audience: “What would they know?” Well before this point, that populism with an emphasis on “pop” is telegraphed via Luhrmann’s taste in music, as gaudily recognizable as it is in his later films. Even in a movie that focuses on traditionalist ballroom dancing, he spins versions of familiar tunes: the Blue Danube Waltz, “Tequila,” a Cyndi Lauper cover.
The Lauper song plays as the new ballroom partners (and possible lovers?!) dance in front of a sparkling rooftop Coca-Cola billboard. The gaudiness is lovely, or maybe the loveliness is sort of gaudy. But if by this point in the film you haven’t given in, it’s as good a time as any: Strictly Ballroom works. Like Luhrmann’s other movies, it works not despite its earnest gaudiness but because of it. He believes in the power of love, pop songs, dance numbers, and well-worn clichés, and as a result all of them pop off the screen.
As such, the dance-competition proceeds predictably. But even in the context of Luhrmann’s other films, it’s harder to predict the feverish pitch that the inherent melodrama is allowed to reach; movies like Moulin Rouge and Australia have a larger scale that matches their operatic ambitions. Without the budget and effects Luhrmann employed so creatively in his later features, Strictly Ballroom more closely resembles the less fantastical end of a Terry Gilliam movie: lots of goony close-ups and grotesque exaggerations. Add in the movie’s copious screaming, and it becomes very, for lack of a better word, Australian.
Despite its broadness, Strictly Ballroom is also Luhrmann’s least stylistically aggressive, least frenetic feature—at least until the 3D-slowed, at times surprisingly classical The Great Gatsby (and even then, there are probably more lingering shots in Strictly Ballroom, perhaps due to technical limitations). The movie’s opening section still has fast cuts, but in the service of more traditional cross-cutting—here between dance footage and faux-documentary interviews, a conceit that is quickly and puzzlingly dropped as soon as the narrative kicks in.
Strictly Ballroom looks nice on Blu-ray, but it’s a little too ragged for the high-definition to make a huge difference (though a single deleted scene, without post-production polish or a high-definition transfer, feels even more low-def and stagey). The extras, though, are worthwhile for any Luhrmann fans , particularly a “Stage to Screen” featurette that has the filmmakers explaining the genesis of Strictly Ballroom—and with it, the production team’s career in film.
In that featurette, Luhrmann explains that the film’s underdog story is also “the story of us getting the film made.” Strictly Ballroom started as a school production and went through three stage incarnations before it. That passionate dedication to his work seems to have carried over to every movie since, which tend to arrive four or five years apart, rather than the standard two or three—and comes through even on this, his least polished film. In explaining his preference for casting actors rather than dancers, Luhrmann notes: “You can act dancing; you can’t dance acting.” Strictly Ballroom, and the films that followed it, acts dancing.