Strictly Ballroom ★★★½

I recall being a pre-teen when I first saw Baz Luhrmann’s debut film, Strictly Ballroom; impressionable and impressed was I by the garish neon-hued costumes, the brash Australian accents, and the campiness of everything from the ballroom competition storyline to the performances of its obscure cast. The first of Luhrmann’s “Red Curtain Trilogy”, Strictly Ballroom is set within the cutthroat world of dancesport, where rising star, open amateur Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) is on the precipice of winning his first Pan Pacific Grand Prix title—only he wants to abandon regulations and dance his own original steps, much to the chagrin of federation President Barry Fife and his own mother, retired dancer cum cosmetics consultant Shirley Hastings (in a spirited performance by Pat Thompson). It’s a tale of progressive creativity challenging established tradition, complacency, and corruption intertwined with a classic ‘ugly duckling’ romance.

There are certainly some rough patches in Luhrmann’s first cinematic endeavor—some of the dialogue that feigns comedic falls flat, there’s an inordinate number of dramatic closeups to atone for the gimcrack mise en scène, and the revealing backstory doesn’t have the heart (or concision) needed to really make the stakes feel as weighty as they’re played—but its playfulness, lively color, niche setting, and various winning performances are a bricolage harbinger of the style Baz Luhrmann would come to epitomize with his following spectaculars.

The stupefying costumes by designer Angus Strathie are gaudy, extravagant showpieces that move with vivacity and a carefree life of their own—I only wish the film had used them to better advantage by including more actual choreography. Hair and makeup in the world of competitive dancing are just as important as the routine, the gown, or the spray tan—and I relished in the rhinestone-bedazzled coifs and bright, tropical palette of the cosmetics. Years ago, this film inspired me to ultimately explore partner dancing for myself, and as a former competitor I enjoyed seeing this fringe métier displayed like a festive piñata loaded with glamour, intrigue, diligence, sacrifice, doubt, defeat, triumph, passion, and love.

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