Take the Lead (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's Dangerous Minds with dancing. That's the sinking feeling I got while watching Take the Lead, one of the year's most uninspired inspirational stories. Culled from the real-life experiences of Pierre Dulaine (Banderas), Take the Lead warps and sanitizes these facts until they adhere rigorously to the rules of the genre. There are no surprises. Everything, from the truncated arc of the least important subplot to the main storyline, follows the expected trajectory. This isn't so much a motion picture as it is a lesson in how to force-feed every aspect of cinema into a formula.

For those who don't know who he is, Dulaine is the ballroom dance teacher who started the New York City school system dance instruction craze that was documented in Mad Hot Ballroom. It's possible to argue whether Dulaine primed the nation's current dance frenzy or whether he fell in step with it. There's no question about Take the Lead. This movie comes late to the proceedings hoping to capitalize upon the popularity of Mad Hot Ballroom and the TV series Dancing with the Stars. In real life, Dulaine spread his message of the Foxtrot and Waltz to elementary school students. In order to provide more "compelling" subplots (as well as a little romance), the characters in Take the Lead have been aged by about a half-dozen years. This, of course, alters the dynamic between the dancers, but that's what the filmmakers were going for.

The story picks up with Dulaine inviting himself to teach ballroom dancing to a group of detention students at a New York City high school. Since the principal (Alfre Woodard) can't find a "legitimate" teacher willing to monitor detention, she agrees to this. At first, the students are dismissive, ridiculing Dulaine and his "old fashioned" music (like "Moon River"). Gradually, they come around. And, as they become better dancers, they make improvements to their personal lives. Enemies Rock (Rob Brown) and Lahrette (Yaya DaCosta) find common ground and begin a tentative romance. Plain Jane Caitlin (Lauren Collins) finds self-confidence. And so on…

As banal as the storyline is, it's tough to fault the actors, all of whom do credible jobs. In fact, to the extent that Take the Lead is watchable, it's down to the performers. Antonio Banderas provides a commanding presence and is believable on the dance floor. For the most part, his young co-stars are capable actors and dancers (although, since they're playing amateurs, they're not expected to do anything too fancy).

The director is first-timer Liz Friedlander, a music video auteur who has decided to bring her bag of tricks to the big screen. So we get a lot of annoying and pointless flourishes. In particular, there are the usual fast edits which force the camera to jump around like a grasshopper on speed, followed by slow-motion sequences that are thrown in at such odd moments that you wonder if the cinematographer fell asleep. It's tough to say why Friedlander chose to make Take the Lead the way she did. Maybe she didn't have enough confidence in the screenplay to believe it would stand on its own. Or maybe it's her calling card.

Despite the epileptic editing, Take the Lead generates no energy. The dance sequences are lifeless. The big dance contest at the end comes across as muddled. For a sample of how to do this sort of thing right, check out Baz Luhrmann's Strictly Ballroom. And, despite all the upbeat mini-resolutions, I found the conclusion to be oddly dissatisfying. By trying for too much good feeling, Friedlander causes an overdose that leaves the audience in a coma.

There's not a lot I can say in defense of Take the Lead. It's a Hollywood product, likely designed primarily for the DVD market. In the interests of maximum appeal, it loses any potential hard edges, soft peddling tough issues that deserve to be shown in their full ugliness. I don't doubt that there's a good story to be found in Dulaine's experiences, but it's not told here. If the topic interests you, I suggest bypassing Take the Lead and renting Mad Hot Ballroom. Not only is it a better made film, but it features richer characters and is a lot more suspenseful. In this case, truth may not be stranger than fiction, but it's more entertaining.

Take the Lead (United States, 2006)

Director: Liz Friedlander
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Rob Brown, Yaya DaCosta, Alfre Woodard, Lauren Collins
Screenplay: Dianne Houston
Cinematography: Alex Nepomniaschy
Music: Swizz Beatz, Aaron Zigman
U.S. Distributor: New Line Cinema
Run Time: 1:48
U.S. Release Date: 2006-04-07
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1