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Trying to find its rhythm

Hackneyed storytelling trips `Take the Lead's' flashy re-imagining of a true-life story.

April 07, 2006|Michael Phillips | Chicago Tribune

The latest ballroom dance-fever picture isn't very good, but some of the dancing is fun. There. The review is finished. You may now resume your merengue lesson.

A kind of "Mild Lukewarm Ballroom" to bookend the recent "Mad Hot Ballroom," "Take the Lead" springs from the real-life tale of how ballroom champ Pierre Dulaine brought some new/old moves to kids in the New York City public schools. The film stars Antonio Banderas as a Hollywood version of Dulaine. It costars Rob Brown as the young man caught between two worlds -- thuggery versus cha-cha -- and the irresistibly named Yaya DaCosta as his reluctant ballroom partner.

All three are good, despite heavy screenwriting odds, as is Alfre Woodard as the steely high school principal who cannot believe Dulaine is going to turn her detention-hall students into Freds and Gingers. It's a fight to the finish between these charismatic performers and Dianne Houston's script, which like most inspirational teen stories has one foot in the real world and another in the reel. "Take the Lead" is one of those true-life stories that feels not so true in the telling. Aside from the characters played by Brown and DaCosta, the kids are all types of cliches, rather than types of kids. (In real life the kids were far younger than the hormonally buggy 17ish-year-olds depicted on screen.)

Dulaine approaches the kids with a mixture of stealth and deadly charm, plus a few lessons in manners. Pretty soon, they're all doing the tango as though they've been doing the tango since infancy. They learn to overcome their differences and steel themselves for the Big Ballroom Competition, in which they must compete with the rich snots from tonier neighborhoods.

First-time feature film director Liz Friedlander and editor Robert Ivison don't buy that old-fashioned jazz about letting performers show what they can do. They shoot and cut the lesson sequences as if presupposing our restlessness. Too much gets chopped into nervous, lurching bits, in the name of music video-steeped "action" (distraction's more like it). You hardly get to see Banderas, or anyone else, execute a move lasting more than three seconds.

I realize no one has an attention span anymore, and they can't make movies like they used to, blah, blah, blah. But ballroom doesn't respond well to this sort of visual antsiness.

Sometime around the midpoint of "Take the Lead" you're able to surrender to its obviousness and begin to enjoy the corn and the people. But, ideally, movies should not work that way. You shouldn't have to hack your way through cliches, visual noise and your own resistance to find the simple pleasures of learning to dance.


"Take the Lead"

MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic material, language and some violence

A New Line Cinema release. Director Liz Friedlander. Screenplay Dianne Houston. Producers Diane Nabatoff, Michelle Grace, Christopher Godsick. Director of photography Alex Nepomniaschy. Editor Robert Ivison.

Choreography JoAnn Jansen. Music Aaron Zigman and Swizz Beatz.

Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.

In general release.

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