Before he was a jet-setting filmmaker and in-demand commercial director with his own inimitably florid style, Australian-born Baz Luhrmann was just another precocious, headstrong art school punk, with dreams of making the leap from aspirant cinematic craftsman to actual filmmaker. He did that with the wild, colorful Strictly Ballroom, his 1992 directorial debut. Inspired
in part by Luhrmann’s own childhood experiences with ballroom dance
classes and his mother’s career as a dance instructor, the movie
itself was based on a 20-minute 1986 stageplay that Luhrmann co-wrote
while in drama school, and its poster tagline (“A life lived in fear is a life half
lived…”) might as well serve as an unofficial motto for the rest of Luhrmann’s professional career.
A hyper-stylized and wildly offbeat comedy about a male dancer, Scott (Paul Mercurio), who bursts free from the restraints of convention and exuberantly charts his own destiny, Strictly Ballroom is a movie bristling with verve and youthful energy, and it clearly serves as a narrative marker for Luhrmann’s own outsized artistic ambitions. Just before he’s scheduled to compete in the big Pan-Pacific ballroom
championships, Scott — who refuses to follow the accepted rules of ballroom dancing, and creates his
own style of choreography, which infuriates the ballroom dancing
establishment — loses his longtime partner Liz (Gia Carides), who leaves him for another dancer. Undeterred, Scott takes up a new partner, Fran (Tara Morice), a beginner who initially seems without promise. After a rocky start, however, things come together for the odd couple, paving the way for a finale at once unlikely and heartwarmingly familiar and reassuring.
Even before it was released theatrically in 1992, the film quickly emerged as an unusual hybrid — an unabashed crowd-pleaser that also racked up praise and awards from critics. After garnering the Cannes Film Festival’s Prix de Jeunesse (“Award of the Youth”) in 1992, it was snapped up for Stateside distribution by Miramax’s Harvey and Bob Weinstein. A rapturous embrace at the Toronto Film Festival later that fall, followed by a cool dozen Australian Film Academy awards, paved the way for an early 1993 Stateside release, where Miramax smartly played up the movie’s dizzying pace, arresting style and beautiful choreography, selling it as an exotic (but English language!) bauble.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case in turn stored in a cardboard slipcover, the new DVD special edition of Strictly Ballroom comes to retailers presented in 1.85:1 widescreen, enhanced for 16×9 televisions, which preserves the aspect ratio of its theatrical presentation. A solid Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound audio track complements the superb video transfer, and optional French and Spanish subtitles are also included, along with a nice new menu screen. All of the special features from the movie’s original DVD release are imported here, including an audio commentary track with Luhrmann, production designer Catherine Martin and choreographer-actor John O’Connell, as well as a two-minute deleted scene in which Scott rebuffs a late attempt to replace Fran with Liz. A 3-D gallery with a robust slate of images from the movie and its pre-production is also included, and an amusing sort of time-capsule featurette, “Samba to Slow Fox,” that includes period piece interview footage with real dancers and special competition material.
The most attractive bonus feature, though, is the addition of a new, 23-minute featurette built around recent interviews with Luhrmann and the film’s creative team, which charts the project’s inception, from its stageplay roots and the fitful securing of financing to its eventual whirlwind international reception. Luhrmann speaks, with great passion and clarity, about his view of the material’s connection to Joseph Campbell’s universal mythology, and Martin (Luhrmann’s offscreen partner as well) has some cherished anecdotal memories of the sort which only flow from the foolhardy effort of youth. Huzzah to this beautiful reflection. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. B+ (Movie) A- (Disc)