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Strictly Ballroom (1992)


Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) has been trained from the age of six to become a ballroom dancing champion. His ambitious mother, Shirley (Pat Thomson), sees a golden future for Scott with his partner Liz (Gia Carides). But Scott’s desire to bring his own steps into traditional dances finds his career in danger. Liz breaks the partnership to take up with Ken Railings (John Hannan), and Scott is warned by conservative dance officials Les Kendall (Peter Whitford) and Barry Fife (Bill Hunter) not to break the rules. Fran (Tara Morice), a shy student at the academy run by Shirley Hastings and Les Kendall, tells Scott she wants to dance with him at the Pan Pacific championships. She takes him to meet her father Rico (Antonio Vargas) and grandmother Ya Ya (Armonia Benedito), who inspire Scott with lessons on how to dance the paso doble. Shirley insists that Scott partner the accomplished Tina Sparkle (Sonia Kruger) at the Pan Pacific Grand Prix. Scott reluctantly agrees before realising his error and asks Fran if she will partner him. When Barry Fife disqualifies them during the competition, Scott’s father, Doug (Barry Otto), steps forward to support the couple. Barry’s lone handclap turns into a thunderous ovation. Scott and Fran thrill the audience with their interpretation of the paso doble.

Curator’s notes

Strictly Ballroom is one of the most popular Australian films ever made. A smash hit on home soil and a considerable success everywhere else it was released, Baz Luhrmann’s debut ranks 6th on the all-time box-office chart for Australian movies with a domestic gross of $21.76 million (March 2008 figures). Evolved from a 30-minute play Luhrmann first devised and staged in 1986, the story of a young rebel triumphing over conservative old fuddy-duddies is nothing new but the execution is so colourful and eccentric it hardly matters. With the crucial contributions of costume designer Angus Strathie, production designer Catherine Martin, choreographer John 'Cha Cha’ O’Connell and cinematographer Steve Mason, Luhrmann creates a universe in which only dance exists.

From the mockumentary-style opening scenes to the final curtain there is not the slightest hint of what lies beyond the rehearsal studios and championship ballrooms inhabited by these obsessed characters. It is a fairytale land complete with a handsome and troubled prince, his regal and manipulative mother, an 'ugly duckling’ commoner and a wicked old autocrat desperately clinging to power. Everyone apart from Scott and Fran falls into the realms of comic grotesquerie, yet Strictly Ballroom still has the magic ingredient of authenticity. Luhrmann attended dance competitions in his youth and brings his inside knowledge to the screen with exaggerated but always believable depictions of the politics and flamboyant personalities involved in the competitive ballroom dancing scene. Balancing the delightfully unrestrained melodrama and kitschy décor is a love story that presses all the right emotional buttons.

In his screen debut, Paul Mercurio proves not only a superb dancer (he was Principal Dancer with the renowned Sydney Dance Company from 1982–92) but also a likeable and natural actor in a role he seems born to play. Fellow debutant Tara Morice, who almost didn’t get the part because she was not a trained dancer, is a perfect match in the Cinderella role. A wallflower at first, but no shrinking violet once she has Scott’s attention, Fran is a feisty young woman who’s not afraid to call him a 'gutless wonder’ when it looks like he’ll cave in and conform. Sweet without ever becoming sugary, the romance is firmly founded on dedication to dance (see clip two) and flourishes once Scott is led out of his stifling environment by Fran. Perhaps the most entrancing and passionate scenes take place in the almost surreal house-cum-tavern-cum-open-air dance studio where Fran’s family and friends congregate. The thunderous tattoo of handclapping and boot stamping as Rico and Ya Ya teach Scott how to 'feel’ the paso doble is a spine-tingling prelude to the show-stopping finale.

Strictly Ballroom rejoices in cheerfully vulgar (but never mean-spirited) Australian humour and is buoyed by wonderful supporting performances. Pat Thomson, who sadly died before the film was released, is a riot as Scott’s manic mother, Bill Hunter is a splendidly hissable villain and John Hannan hams it up wonderfully as boozy, bottle blonde dancer Ken Railings. Strictly Ballroom won eight AFI awards including Best Film and Best Director and instantly catapulted Baz Luhrmann into the top rank of Australian filmmakers. Like Scott and Fran at the Pan Pacifics, Luhrmann won the hearts of audiences by putting on a dazzling cinematic display of the 'crowd-pleasing moves’ Barry Fife warned Scott about.

Strictly Ballroom was released in Australian cinemas on 20 August 1992.