Film Reviews: Wednesday, April 05, 2006
Take the Lead
Starring Antonio Banderas and Rob Brown. Directed by Liz Friedlander. Written by Dianne Houston. Rated PG-13.
Shtickly Ballroom

It takes three to tango in the by-the-numbers school dance movie Take the Lead.


Movies about school come from all corners of the globe, and they tend to be defined by what schools are like in whichever country the movies are from. America’s tradition of school movies is mostly about teachers taking charge of underprivileged, crime-ridden, dilapidated inner-city classrooms stuffed full of poor, troublemaking, disinterested students of different ethnicities. This tradition goes back for decades: The Blackboard Jungle, Up the Down Staircase, Stand and Deliver, Lean on Me, Dangerous Minds, etc. In the end, they’re all driven by pretty much the same idea; the teacher’s able to make a difference because he’s the only one who cares about these kids, dammit!

The latest undistinguished addition to this subgenre, Take the Lead is also a dance movie, though it’s not so good as that, either. It’s based on the true story of Pierre Dulaine, a former champion ballroom dancer who began a program in the early 1990s for teaching his discipline (and proper social graces) to New York City elementary school kids. As you might expect, the Hollywood version of his life keeps the setting but changes the time to the present day. Antonio Banderas plays Pierre, who volunteers to take on his school’s chronic offenders and teach them the waltz and the foxtrot during the long hours of detention. He keeps the worst of them out of trouble with the law and teaches these hip-hop kids to appreciate Gershwin, while the students throw in a few new-style dance steps to go with the old moves.

Never mind that last year’s flawed documentary Mad Hot Ballroom gave a much more interesting glimpse of the spangled world of ballroom dance intersecting with the reality of New York City’s unfashionable schools. This movie doesn’t work on its own genre-bound terms. The kids in Pierre’s class are straight off the templates — fat guy, fat girl, white guy with cornrows, white girl from the right side of the tracks. The same goes for the obstacles that Pierre faces — uncomprehending bureaucrats, snooty ballroom-dance veterans, teachers who think these kids don’t have a chance. There’s a romantic subplot between two kids (Rob Brown and Yaya DaCosta) with dead brothers on opposite sides of a gang war that never becomes convincing. Banderas and his fellow actors go through their paces sleepily, and the only one who emerges with any distinctiveness is Alfre Woodard as a beaten-down principal who rouses herself out of her cynicism to make fun of the idea of teaching dance.

The film comes close to working during the inevitable showdown at the dance contest, when two guys (Dante Basco and Lyriq Bent) who’ve been squabbling over the same dance partner (Jenna Dewan) resolve matters by performing a three-way tango and stealing the show from the other contestants. As fun as this sequence is, it should have been a home run. Liz Friedlander, a music-video director in her filmmaking debut, knows how to light the scenes but has little sense of the choreography’s flow or the way the dancers relate to each other. Not sensual enough as a dance movie and not inspirational enough as a school movie, Take the Lead falls flat on every count.

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