I must admit I rolled my eyes when I read the hyperbolic quote on the 'Strictly Ballroom' packaging claiming the film inspired the 'Dancing With the Stars' phenomenon. Yet after viewing writer-director Baz Luhrmann's love letter to the exacting, ego-driven, viciously competitive, and shamelessly glamorous discipline, I'm inclined to agree. Everything America adores about the highly rated ABC reality series is on the screen and deliciously heightened in this rollicking Australian romantic comedy that respects the art and politics of ballroom dance while skewering every campy aspect of the sport. Though I've seen hundreds of films over the course of several decades, I can honestly say I've never seen anything quite like 'Strictly Ballroom.' Unassuming yet audacious, low-key yet insanely over the top, this is one charming film that deserves its devoted following.
Borrowing elements from such classics as 'Dirty Dancing,' 'Easter Parade,' and 'My Fair Lady,' 'Strictly Ballroom' tells the tale of brash ballroom dancer Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio), who's taken to task by the sport's rigid governing board for - gasp! - fashioning his own innovative steps to traditional dances. Such brazen disregard for established guidelines is tantamount to treason in the ballroom universe, and much to Scott's dismay, he is severely chastised by officials, his parents - especially his overbearing mother who micromanages his career - and his stuck-up partner, Liz Holt (Gia Carides), who abandons him in favor of a rival. Undaunted, Scott forges ahead and agrees to dance with Fran (Tara Morice), a plain Jane beginner with passion and spirit. The tight-knit dance community ridicules his decision, but the pair works hard and, racing against the clock, vows to compete at the prestigious Australian Pan Pacific Championships. Will the duo wow the judges and silence their dissenters? Or will Scott's novice partner screw up under pressure? And will there be both a professional and personal happy ending to their turbulent saga?
Exaggerated doesn't begin to describe a lot of the behavior depicted in 'Strictly Ballroom,' but if you're willing to go with the flow, the inflated antics are what make Luhrmann's film so much fun. Populated by divas, arrogant prigs, and insecure neurotics, the whole ballroom environment - the personification of "tantrums and tiaras" - is a separate entity unlike any other. Like the title says, that world is indeed strictly ballroom, yet the strictness also applies to the iron-clad regulations that often stifle and stymie the creative impulses of an elite group of dancers more concerned with crafting art than perfectly executing a series of designated steps. Rules are made to be broken, the film tells us, just not in ballroom dancing.
Luhrmann knows those rules and the world of ballroom well, as he himself competed on the circuit in his youth. 'Strictly Ballroom' began its life as a play featuring Luhrmann, then evolved into a low-budget film, and though production values look a bit chintzy, Luhrmann's intimate experience and inside knowledge lend the movie a spirited sense of authenticity that shines through the broad acting and stylization. Numerous extreme close-ups (one of the director's signature traits) bring an in-your-face immediacy to the picture that fits right in with its up-close-and-personal approach. Despite a bit of clunkiness around the edges, 'Strictly Ballroom' is a winning first feature for Luhrmann, often displaying glimmers of artistry that would fully blossom later on in such films as 'Romeo + Juliet' and 'Moulin Rouge!'.
The soundtrack tunes, like 'Time After Time' and 'Love Is in the Air,' certainly enliven the proceedings and evoke an air of nostalgia, and the dance sequences are quite good, but tame by today's more liberal 'Dancing With the Stars' standards. The sweet love story also strikes a chord, even though the transformative ugly-duckling-turning-into-a-swan angle has been done to death over the years. Ironically, though, the clichés are what make 'Strictly Ballroom' comfortable, while its outrageousness keeps it fresh, and Luhrmann strikes enough of a balance between the two to produce a motion picture that woos its audience like a playful tango.
Women will certainly swoon over 'Strictly Ballroom,' but there's enough humor and feistiness on display to also attract their mates. Though far from a masterwork, this high-spirited, cute romantic romp will continue to garner new fans long after the 'Dancing With the Stars' fad has faded.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Strictly Ballroom' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard eco-friendly case. The 25GB single-layer disc features a video codec of 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. Once the disc is inserted into the player, previews for 'Chicago: Diamond Edition,' 'Shakespeare in Love,' and ''Velvet Gold Mine,' as well as a promo for the Epix movie channel precede the full-motion menu with music.
Low-budget, independent films often have a tough time when upgraded to HD, and 'Strictly Ballroom' is no exception. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer often looks great, but there's a roughness and faded quality to some scenes that make this effort inconsistent. Grain is often visible but not overly pronounced, and a clean, scratch-free print allows all the colorful details to shine through. Clarity and contrast vary, however. Many close-ups possess a pleasing razor sharpness that highlights pores, sweat, and hair follicles well, but wider shots can appear a tad soft and hazy. Exteriors can look slightly dingy and flat, but interior scenes often benefit from a vibrancy boost that heightens depth and allows colors to blossom.
Ballroom dancing is all about flash and glamour, and this transfer treats the glitzy costumes with respect. The shimmering gold of Scott's matador jacket, the blood red tones of Fran's flamenco gown, and all the yellows, pinks, and purples exude a pleasing level of brightness and saturation, as does the neon red of the lit Coca-Cola sign. Black levels fluctuate a bit, but most are solid and dense, and whites are crisp and well defined. Fleshtones look natural, too, and remain stable throughout the course of the film.
A little fuzziness afflicts background elements at times, but shadow delineation is good, and no crush creeps into the picture. Digital enhancements aren't noticeable either, and just a hint of errant noise can be fleetingly detected in a couple of instances. Without a doubt, this is the best 'Strictly Ballroom' has ever looked on home video, but sadly it's not as spectacular as some of the dance moves executed on screen.
Music, of course, is an essential element in any ballroom dancing film, and the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track included here does the soundtrack proud, providing clean, well-modulated tones that help immerse us in the stylized world of fox trots and tangos. The '70s and '80s tunes possess fine fidelity and fill the room nicely, but the rest of the mix remains anchored in the front channels. Noticeable stereo separation helps to expand the soundscape, and a wide dynamic scale allows highs and lows room to breathe. Not much in the way of bass frequencies or subtle atmospherics adorn this track, but accents, such as the squeak of a marker across a calendar board, are crisp and distinct.
Dialogue is nicely prioritized, and though the Aussie accents can be a bit tough to decipher at times, most of the conversations are easy to comprehend. No surface noise is present, and other defects, such as hiss, are absent, too. Though far from a knockout, the lossless audio is a nice upgrade from previous editions and adds extra sparkle to the story and dances.
All the extras from both the 2002 and 2010 DVDs have been ported over to this release. It's an adequate selection of supplements that nicely fleshes out the disc.
'Strictly Ballroom' borders on camp, but manages to keep its toe-tapping shoes on the ground. Broad, over the top, yet still possessing a lovely simplicity and unassuming warmth, this 'Dirty Dancing'/'My Fair Lady' hybrid is tough to resist, even if you're not a dancing enthusiast. Some laugh-out-loud moments, tender romance, and impressive Terpsichore distinguish director Baz Luhrmann's freshman effort that's just dated enough to engender a cozy feeling of nostalgia. The Blu-ray video transfer and lossless audio outshine previous versions, even if they're not dazzling specimens, and a handful of entertaining extras sweeten the pot. 'Strictly Ballroom' requires a specialized taste, but if you just relax and go with the flow, you'll find a lot to love about this small, cute film. Recommended.