Friday, 12 February 2016

DANCE FILM: Take the Lead (2006)

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Take the Lead (USA, 2006)
Directed by Liz Friedlander
Starring Antonio Banderas, Alfre Woodard, John Ortiz, Rob Brown 

Blackboard Jungle has an awful lot to answer for. It's been more than 60 years since Richard Brooks' Oscar-nominated drama set the template for the 'teacher tries to reach the kids' story, and since then we've been saddled with a multitude of miserably derivative delicacies. For every School of Rock, which playfully and self-deprecatingly moved the format on a little, there's at least a dozen films as creaky and as condescending as Dangerous Minds.

 
Take the Lead saddles itself with a double yolk by being both a Blackboard Jungle knock-off and a dance film, one of the most cliché-ridden and insubstantial genres under the sun. Step Up from the same year proved that some degree of innovation is possible within such tight paramaters, and the raw charisma of Antonio Banderas leads us to raise our expectations. But while it's not an especially awful film, it is also desperately unremarkable.
 
Since Banderas' performance was undoubtedly the main selling point for those marketing the film, it makes logical sense of start with him. Banderas has always been a deeply charismatic actor, capable of shifting from smouldering mischief to seething obsession in the blink of an eye. He's been in a fair few stinkers in his time - Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, the later Spy Kids films - but like his Spy Kids counterpart Ricardo Montalban, his very presence is often enough to lift a production - and anyone who can hijack the Shrek series from under the main cast's nose deserves the benefit of any doubt.
 
In the case of Take the Lead, Banderas fulfils basically the same role as Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds. Not only do their characters have the same dynamic, but they are both brought in to set the acting standard among the remaining cast of relative unknowns. Banderas begins very shakily, either unsure of what he is supposed to be doing or disbelieving that this is the kind of thing he has wound up being in following his recent success. He grows in confidence as the film rolls on, but there's still an odd feeling of him being too good or too big for the story. His is the sort of role for a break-out actor, rather than an established star (something which also prompted Pfeiffer's demise).
 
The biggest problem, however, with Take the Lead is not Banderas' performance, but the shaky ground upon which it is built. The true life story of Pierre Dulaine, who really did teach dance to underperforming schoolchildren, is an interesting and inspiring tale. It deserves to be approached in an unusual manner, i.e. befitting of its subject, rather than what interesting features there are being strapped down and put into a genre-shaped box like an act of forced contortionism. In short, a story this good should never feel this run-of-the-mill.
 
Some of the blame for this lies in the script. Dianne Houston's background is predominantly in television, having penned the script for the short film Override (Danny Glover's directorial debut) and a handful of TV movies. She's reasonably talented in her given medium, but the stakes of made-for-TV movies are often remarkably low, and she doesn't given Banderas or the other cast members any real feeling of significance. It feels like something that was flung together at the last minute around a number of set roles, like a well-lit but threadbare pantomime.
 
An equal share of the blame lies with director Liz Friedlander, who comes from a background in music videos and has also filmed episodes of Gossip Girl, One Tree Hill and The Vampire Diaries. As I stated in my review of Highlander, numerous great filmmakers have cut their teeth in music videos, such as Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The difference is that these directors used the medium to experiment visually while taking on all the technical nous that they could muster. Friedlander is more at the Russell Mulcahy end of filmmaking, with her sole feature to date being well-shot and possessing good dancing, but lacking a distinctive stamp.
 
To Friedlander's credit, the dancing sequences in Take the Lead are generally well done. Her camerawork and choice of angles are less off-puttingly frenetic than the later Step Up films, though it's hard to tell whether this is a creative choice or something that can be explained by the relatively slow pace of ballroom dancing (not every film like this has to look like Strictly Ballroom). Most of the performers are good dancers, some of them very good, and the longer shots means that we get to see more of their physical prowess in its raw form.
 
One of the common comments made about the Step Up series was that the films would have been a lot better if they had disposed of the plot entirely and just strung all the dance sequences together. Given how thin the plots of the films were - or, in the case of Step Up 3, virtually non-existent - it may sound like a compelling argument. And as much as I railed against this in my reviews, it does seem to be the fate of any dance film that what plot it possesses is either pushed into the background and forgotten. or reduced to the most over-simplified tosh possible.
Take the Lead has moments where its story does come to life, where you see the hardship and sense of transformation that you got in the best bits of Fame. When Friedlander focusses on the plight of LaRhette (a good performance by Yaya DaCosta on debut), we do begin to get a sense of how tough life really is for those less fortunate. For all the annoying scenes of the cast acting 'street' in a deeply cliched manner, we get scenes like this which give us something to invest in, and unlike Jon M. Chu, Friedlander has the self-assurance to keep us in these moments long enough to make them at least somewhat meaningful.
 
The individual performances outside of Banderas are admittedly very hit-and-miss. A couple of faces will be familiar, with Jenna Dawan getting less to work with than she did in a similar role in Step Up and Dante Basco being as unconvincingly threatening here as he was in Hook all those years ago. The others ultimately blur into one; like members of a pantomime chorus, they get odd lines to try and make their own but not enough by way of a character to make them stick in our minds when the credits roll. Banderas does his best to marshall them, and for little periods they do gel together as a group. But the whole film is one of little moments and neither it nor the cast ever really come together.
 
Take the Lead is a disappointly generic offering which seems incapable of having an original thought in its body. People who were turned off by the Step Up sequels' in-your-face approach may find it a more tolerable experience - at least on an aesthetic level - but its script is every bit as flat and insubstantial, and the direction and cast aren't strong enough to lift the material. It isn't the worst dance film you'll ever find, but it is one of the most achingly mediocre, and a clear indication of how stories like this should not be handled.

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NEXT REVIEW: The Football Factory (2004)

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