By Amy Nicholson
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It's difficult to tell from the image on the poster for Take the Lead, but that's not star Antonio Banderas dancing in blue silhouette. In fact, the movie isn't even about Banderas' dancing it's about Banderas teaching teenagers to dance. You'd think that might be a dream come true for some of them, but no. They all deride him as dorky and uncool because he wears suits, has good manners, and listens to Gershwin tunes. Did we wander into a Mormon movie by mistake? Take it from one who's seen a few too many contemporary Mormon comedies are nearly always about how Mormons seem dorky and uncool but are actually awesomely nice and helpful, just like Banderas' character here.
The leading man plays Pierre Dulaine, founder of the ballroom dancing program for New York inner-city schools that was previously made famous by the documentary Mad Hot Ballroom. But screenwriter Dianne Houston (Knights of the South Bronx) and director Liz Friedlander (R.E.M.'s "The Great Beyond" music video) have made a very canny change from the true story, substituting high-schoolers in place of elementary schoolkids. Watching presexual youngsters engaged in ballroom dancing felt at best like an odd dress-up game like putting sweaters on dogs and at worst like a creepy mimicry of adult courtship by participants too young to understand its significance. With good-looking teens, many of them played by actors considerably older (Dante Basco is 30!), it's a whole new ballroom.
The downside is that we never learn quite what motivates Dulaine to just show up at the high school one day and volunteer to teach dance. There are hints of trauma in his past and references to a dead wife, but nothing concrete though you half expect to learn that his wife was killed in a freak dancing accident. Being Latin (albeit half-French, just to explain the name), Dulaine is just so damned passionate about dance that he has to share that burning in his soul, or something. Principal Augustine James (Alfre Woodard) is somewhat bemused by what she sees as Dulaine's naiveté in a school where shootings and drug overdoses are the norm, so she gives him the detention kids and figures that'll be the end of it. But he's Antonio Banderas, and he's passionately passionate, damn it! So he sticks with it and gradually earns himself a little respect, while at the same time learning to appreciate contemporary music and hip-hop dance.
The merging of ballroom and hip-hop sensibilities, via musical mashups and an integration of styles, is likely to make Take the Lead more appealing to the entire family, making the obvious but not-always-acknowledged point that the specifics of popular culture may change, but the intent and inspiration are similar. But given that the movie's main message is about the value of ballroom dancing, things get awfully muddled toward the end. As in Mad Hot Ballroom, the story builds toward a climactic dance competition, which would inherently be quite traditionalist. Yet they expect to win it by using You Got Served stylings? In real life, stuffed-shirt adults aren't quite so interested in youth culture.
Also marring the final act is the addition of some sudden, coincidental conflict scheduling, as well as the obligatory moral dilemma of crime versus dancing. Not that such things don't happen, but all at once? Take the Lead does such a good job at delineating individual, believable characters that it's annoying to see them shoehorned into formula to force a Hollywood ending. On the plus side, the sheer weirdness of two subplots suggesting that white people have a secret fetish for super-fat black folks makes for some good humor (and, if true, might also explain the career of Mo'Nique).
Contrary to popular belief, Banderas is not a trained dancer, though you'd never know it here. Many of the kids are, but they can also act. Standouts in the cast include Brandon D. Andrews as gentle-giant Monster, Yaya DaCosta as the put-upon daughter of a hooker, Lauren Collins as the unhappy rich girl who chooses detention dance class because it's less pressure, and Katya Virshilas as the ice-queen veteran who nonetheless shows the kids that stuffy old-fashioned dance can still be smoking-hot.
It's no surprise to anyone who's seen his Robert Rodriguez films that Banderas works well with kids. But it may surprise those who saw Evita that he can make a music-and-dance movie that doesn't suck.
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