Whilst director Baz Luhrmann has given us bigger movies such as "Moulin Rouge!" and "Romeo + Juliet" his first movie "Strictly Ballroom" is for me his best. Made on a tiny budget compared to his later movies "Strictly Ballroom" is wickedly funny with its almost documentary styling look at the world of competitive ballroom dancing in Australia but at the same time also impressively romantic. It is rather an offbeat movie with the first 10 minutes being some of the most quirky I have witnessed in a movie but it works, it's wonderfully entertaining, a pleasure to watch as it draws you into a storyline about doing your thing whilst coupled with a romantic element and when it's over it leaves you wanting more. In many ways it looks like a movie which you shouldn't enjoy, what bloke wants to watch a movie about Australian ballroom dancing, but every second of it works even if the storyline is not really that original.
Having been trained to ballroom dance since the age of six Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) is on the edge of greatness, that is until he decides to throw in his own dance moves rather than those drilled into him by his dance teacher and mother. Soon Scott becomes the enemy of the dancing authorities who disapprove of his free willed approach and finds himself without a dance partner when she decides to pair up with his main rival. With the Australian Pan Pacific Championships just a few weeks away Scott needs a new partner and finds himself taking on Fran (Tara Morice) a beginner dancer who is both clumsy and less than glamorous. But together they bond and become great except with so many people counting on Scott to win they may not be allowed to partner up at the championships or dance in their own unorthodox style.
It has to be said that "Strictly Ballroom" is a seriously off beat movie and with the opening sequence throwing us straight into the crazy world of competitive ballroom dancing it feels almost surreal. From bleached hair, fake tans, sequins and skimpy outfits it almost borders on the freaky especially when we meet the almost caricature like Shirley and Doug Hastings bellowing encouragement from the sidelines for their son Scott. But it is hilarious and this sense of offbeat comedy flows throughout "Strictly Ballroom" making it feel all rather strange but funny strange.
Get past the offbeat comedy and the rather caricature like presentation with various characters feeling like they are the over the top amalgamation of many real life people and the actual storyline to "Strictly Ballroom" is rather unoriginal. It is a combined story so that on one hand you have Scott who has been trained to dance following the rules but wants to dance his own way meaning that we have a moralistic element about living your life your way without fear. And coupled with this is an ugly duckling romantic storyline as Scott partners up with the less that glamorous Fran who over the course of the movie turns from a dowdy geeky girl into a stunner. As such the basic storylines are unoriginal and it is all quite obvious as we watch Scott having to battle against doing what he believes in or doing what will possibly win him a dancing championship. But it works when coated with Luhrmann's offbeat approach making it skip along at a wonderful pace mixing comedy with romance.
What helps makes "Strictly Ballroom" more than just a quirky dance movie is that despite a low budget there are some great scenes. The whole quirky opening is beautifully shot not only to capture the almost eccentric world of competitive ballroom dancing but also the glitz of it all with the over the top costumes and make up. But then you get equally impressive more intimate scenes such as Scott teaching Fran to dance on the rooftop of the dance school backlit by a Coca-Cola billboard. And then you have Fran's father teaching him how to dance the Latin way with feeling rather than the regimented foot steps which have been drilled into him.
What is so nice is that the pairing of Paul Mercurio and Tara Morice as Scott and Fran feels believable and we getting drawn into the natural way they become close. None of it feels forced from the dancing through to the tender romantic moments and they both come across as very comfortable together. And at the same time that sense of being comfortable shows itself when we watch them dance and it is a joy to watch, full of emotion and passion which flows off of the screen.
In a way Mercurio and Morice are for the most left to play it straight whilst everyone else from Bill Hunter as dancing Judge Barry Fife, Pat Thomson as Scott's mum Shirley and Barry Otto as his father Doug play it over the top. And they do so wonderfully creating caricatures which flick between being almost repulsive but then funny.
What this all boils down to is that "Strictly Ballroom" is a movie which whilst has a low budget and works with some unoriginal storylines is an absolute pleasure to watch. It achieves what it sets out to do filling you with empowerment to live life your way but at the same time makes you laugh through the crazy world of competitive ballroom dancing. What is more is that it is a movie which puts you in a good mood and when it's over it leaves you wanting more.