It would be an easy thing to take apart Liz Friedlander’s Take the Lead. Yes, it’s the umpteenth retelling of one of those “teacher who made a difference” stories, designed to morally uplift viewers and leave them with a smile, a tear, a song in their hearts and, in this case, rhythm in their feet. And it boasts a screenplay by TV writer Dianne Houston that not only bites off more than it can chew, but carves off more than it can even put it into its mouth while adhering to the TV dictum of tying everything up with a nice bow by the final fade-out. Moreover, it’s typical in that it takes a “true-life” story and fictionalizes it to the point it has little resemblance to reality.
But there’s something appealing and satisfying about the film that makes me not want to dwell on its negatives, especially since that last cited negative is here something of a positive. The real Pierre Dulaine — here played by a perfectly cast Antonio Banderas — was the driving force behind the school ballroom dancing program that was the subject of the hit (and much over-praised) documentary Mad Hot Ballroom.
One of the central drawbacks to that film was that its pleasantness was finally overcome by its stunt-like nature, and the fact that the spectacle of 11-year-olds playing at being Astaire and Rogers is ultimately limited in its appeal. By taking the ballroom-dancing concept into the realm of high school, the dramatic possibilities in Take the Lead are increased considerably, despite running the risk of the film losing its individuality in the process. In a lot of ways, Take the Lead does lose its identity, moving into a more standardized story. But that more standardized story is also a more tractable and entertaining one.
Then too, Houston’s script may be simultaneously too messy and too tidy — as well as wanting in the motivation department — but it brims with likable characters and sharp lines, the bulk of the latter going to Alfre Woodard as school principal Augustine James. Woodard takes charge of every scene she’s in. When, early on in the film, she walks into the frame talking on a phone telling a car repair shop, “I don’t want it pimped, I want it fixed,” she has the audience as much in the palm of her hand as she’ll soon be in the palm of the irresistible Dulaine’s hand.
Of course, it certainly helps that Banderas plays Dulaine. In fact, the film would fall to pieces without him, not in the least because his innate charm and poise is all that keeps us from asking the key question the film never addresses — just exactly what motivates him to take on this project. The only possible insight the script offers is when Dulaine happens upon the spectacle of troubled teen Rock (Rob Brown, Coach Carter) doing a number on James’ car with a golf-club, realizes it’s her car when he retrieves her parking permit, and is suddenly overcome with a desire to rehabilitate Rock — and others in his spot — by teaching them ballroom dancing. That’s really all there is in the way of development; it’s certainly not much, nor is it persuasive. What makes it work is Banderas.
However, Banderas does receive help from the rest of the cast and the direction of first-time filmmaker Liz Friedlander. Friedlander comes from the world of music videos, which is usually a bad sign, but she handles her feature debut with a good bit of panache and the one thing essential to a film of this type — a genuine feel for the music, and the ability to translate her own excitement to the screen. The musical numbers may not generally be all that great, but Friedlander’s enthusiasm comes through in nearly every shot and edit. And she’s unafraid to go all out, even if it means copping a cliche or two, as when the world “melts” away through a dissolve to show two dancers so lost in each other that no one else is there. (Henry Koster pulled this one back in 1939 in the Deanna Durbin vehicle, First Love.)
Friedlander also evidences a strong feeling for cross-cutting and an intelligent propensity for linking scenes by advancing the soundtrack, so that the complementary sound of the next scene is heard before the cut to the next scene. It could feel forced, but here it works to create a seamless flow. While the story may be lacking in some areas, Friedlander’s direction is the most creative and assured I’ve seen from any newcomer — and quite a few veterans — this year. It may be housed in a very imperfect film, but nonetheless it’s exceptional filmmaking.
At bottom, yes, it’s an absurdly optimistic fable that has little relation to the real world, but it’s a beguiling and entertaining one — and who knows, it may actually make a few kids aspire to the Banderas brand of coolness instead of settling for the lowest common denominator. Rated PG-13 for thematic material, language and some violence.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke