When she walks into our interview room at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons, first-time film director Liz Friedlander looks flushed with the excitement of finally seeing months of her work on screen and captivated by the man who inspired them. She explains that the story of Pierre Dulaine, the real life dance instructor who taught inner city children to become ballroom champs, is not so much a story about dancing as it is a story about trust.
Urban elementary kids have to trust a refined European teacher that their hard work will not go unrewarded. Even scarier, they have to trust him that their peers won’t think them uncool for taking on the world of tango, rumba, and swing.
The children’s parents and principals have to trust that there is value to Dulaine’s program beyond fancy footwork—that the children will, as Dulaine promises, waltz away from their lessons with a new sense of dignity and respect for others. And Dulaine has to trust his inner-city students to take his program seriously and perform up to his expectations.
In marked contrast to all of this pinballing trust stands the film industry. Filled with cynical studio executives, if it is defined by anything, it is distrust. Distrust that audiences will respond to original stories and authentic material, distrust that a film that doesn’t slavishly cater to their tastes can resonate with teens and preteens, and distrust that moviegoers will be interested in characters who don’t boast fully developed bodies in underdeveloped clothing.
However enthusiastic director Friedlander and producer Diane Nabatoff were for the trust themes in Pierre Dulaine’s real story, they let the distrustful nature of their business get the better of them.
As anyone who’s seen the phenomenal documentary Mad Hot Ballroom knows, Dulaine’s “Dancing Classrooms” program began in 1994 with 10 and 11-year-olds from two New York City elementary schools. Through the strict discipline of ballroom dance, the children learn etiquette, poise, and the value of hard work. They also learned some difficult truths about competition when, at the end of the course, they compete in a citywide dance contest. The program was such a success that by 2004 it had spread to 58 other schools, with plans for further expansion.
In Take the Lead, Hollywood’s version of Dulaine’s story, those fifth-graders from varied socio-economic backgrounds become teenagers from disadvantaged, one-note families. After witnessing one of the troubled teens take a baseball bat to his principal’s car, Dulaine (Antonio Banderas) decides that, rather than report the young man to the authorities, he will teach him and his classmates to dance.
From the beginning, then, we see the distrust at work. The filmmakers don’t believe we’ll buy a man who chooses to use his talent to help his community of his own volition, so they contrive some dramatic impetus that is not nearly as interesting (or inspiring) as reality.
They also place totally unnecessary barriers in Dulaine’s way. Rather than collaborating with a principal friend to create the program, as the real Dulaine did, Banderas must overcome a skeptical headmistress (Alfe Woodard) and jealous faculty members who try to use the PTA to shut him down.
Finally, and perhaps most egregiously, Friedlander and Nabatoff don’t trust the graceful, invigorating expressions of ballroom to appeal to new-millennial audiences (which, given the popularity of “Dancing with the Stars,” was a very bad bet).
Instead, Dulaine’s dancers fuse formal steps with hip-hop so that, at the final competition, they can produce the tired effect of “well, I never” responses from their traditionalist competitors.
Take the Lead still boasts a certain amount of predictable appeal. Banderas and the young actors work wonders with the formula so that we can’t help but feel for the challenges the fictional kids face. The alcoholism, prostitution, larceny, and vandalism that permeate their lives are affecting, but they’re also a cheap way to wring emotion from a film that didn’t need to court pity from middle class audiences.
I’m not one of those critics who subscribe to the idea that reality must be followed no matter what the cost to entertainment—if the inspirational material behind an “inspired by a true story movie” needs some sprucing, by all means, spruce. But here, reality is violated for no other purpose than to make the script more conventional, and thus, boring.
Not many feel-good movies (intentionally forgetting Kindergarten Cop) have been produced about elementary-age kids. Rather than capitalize on that gap to offer audiences something new, Take the Lead gives us yet another Coach Carter, Dangerous Minds, Stand and Deliver, with a bit of Flash Dance thrown in for good measure.