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  • Post last modified:September 25, 2022

Strictly Ballroom: Going Your Own Way


Paul Mercurio and Tara Morice. Photo: Ronin Films

Two tragic deaths had affected the production before its premiere during the 1992 Cannes film festival. Ted Albert, the music executive who gave Baz Luhrmann the chance to turn his play into a movie, died from a heart attack in 1990, threatening the whole project. Thanks to investments made by Albert’s family and company, it was ultimately saved. Then, a month before they were all going to Cannes, co-star Pat Thomson died from cancer. In the end, Strictly Ballroom became a triumph at the festival and ultimately a global phenomenon. This is Luhrmann’s most personal and (to date) best film.

Developing his own style
Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) grew up in a family of ballroom dancers and now he’s their best chance to win an important championship. However, Scott can’t resist developing his own style of dancing, which is showier than the traditional steps, infuriating Australian Dancing Federation Head Barry Fife (Bill Hunter), who insists on ”strictly ballroom”. After losing a minor championship because of his provocative moves, Scott is abandoned by his partner.

Without his family knowing, he’s approached by Fran (Tara Morice), an inexperienced dancer at the studio. He spots potential talent and they begin to dance together in secret, while his family (especially his domineering ballrooom-dancing veteran of a mother) keep looking for his next partner. Eventually they find a candidate, causing a rupture between Scott and Fran…

Based on personal experiences
In 1984, Baz Luhrmann was studying drama in Sydney when he and his classmates staged a short play based on his experiences as a teenaged ballroom dancer. A hit, the play was eventually expanded by Luhrmann with help from Craig Pearce, a buddy from school. This more ambitious version is what Ted Albert saw and loved, offering to help Luhrmann turn it into a movie. At one stage, the project was about to add more realistic themes, but anyone who’s ever seen a Baz Luhrmann film knows this isn’t what he’s interested in. His vision, a colorful comedy-drama, remained intact. Many of the people who worked on the play followed Luhrmann into the movies and continue to collaborate with him; they are part of what makes a Luhrmann film, from the catchy interpretations of pop hits to the brightly colored costumes and intense camerawork.

Just the right touch when it came to selecting pop songs.

Strictly Ballroom enchanted audiences with an unremarkable love story that took flight because of cute leading performances, arresting dance sequences and just the right touch when it came to selecting pop songs; for example, composer David Hirschfelder’s arrangement of Cyndi Lauper’s ”Time After Time” builds very effectively. Angus Strathie’s outrageous ballroom costumes are a sight to behold and goes hand in glove with the hysterical drama behind the scenes at the championships; Thomson is enjoyable as Scott’s desperate mother. The contrasts between generations are also amusing, with the older dancers hiding secrets about their past and trying to shield their little world from inconsiderate upstarts.

I had fun watching this movie. It’s a feeling I rarely have when I sit in front of a Baz Luhrmann film. Finding most of them overlong, overly elaborate and packed with sentimental emotions that seem insincere, I couldn’t help thinking I wish Luhrmann would go back to something like Strictly Ballroom. Not all that different from his later films, but more heartfelt and effortless in a way.

Strictly Ballroom 1992-Australia. 94 min. Color. Produced by Tristram Miall. Directed by Baz Luhrmann. Screenplay: Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce. Cinematography: Steve Mason. Music: David Hirschfelder. Editing: Jill Bilcock. Production Design: Catherine Martin. Costume Design: Catherine Martin, Angus Strathie. Cast: Paul Mercurio (Scott Hastings), Tara Morice (Fran), Bill Hunter (Barry Fife), Pat Thomson, Gia Carides, Peter Whitford. 

Trivia: Later a stage musical. 

BAFTA: Best Original Film Score, Production Design, Costume Design.

Last word: “When I started on Strictly Ballroom […] the first six months were spent with the financiers, trying to say, ‘But can’t you make it more naturalistic? Like Dirty Dancing? Can’t it be?’ There was a whole script written where it was set in a steel mill. We were trying to naturalize it. I realized that we weren’t being true to the original idea. The idea was to have the silly, heightened style of any old Hollywood movie. But deal with serious issues. The idea was to clash the two of those things together.” (Luhrmann, Movieweb)

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