‘Strictly Ballroom’ Baz Luhrmann

 strictly-showcase

THE HISTORICAL/LITERARY BACKGROUND

The film, Strictly Ballroom, was released in 1992.  The screenplay was based on an earlier thirty-minute stage play developed by Luhrmann in the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in 1985.  It was first screened at the Cannes Film Festival and went on to win the ‘Prix de Jeunnes’ there.  Various Australian Film Institute awards were followed by two BAFTA awards, a Golden Globe nomination, and prizes from the Sydney, Melbourne and Chicago Film Festivals.

 PLOT SUMMARY

 This story is about the Hastings family who are Australian and who take part in ballroom dancing competitions.  Scott, the young son, is participating in the Waratah Dance Championship.  He is determined to be creative in his style of dancing and not adhere to the conventional steps.  Barry Fife is the manager of the Pan Pacific Dancing Competition and controls all entries and all styles of dance.  In addition, Scott’s mother Shirley is determined that Scott will win this competition.  Scott loses his partner Liz who is frustrated at his innovativeness.

 Later, Scott encounters a young girl called Fran.  Fran is keen to become Scott’s partner and dance along with his style.  They practice secretly and improve their steps greatly.  At the same time, we see Scott’s father Doug practicing his own style of dance.  As the story develops, we learn that Doug was banned by the Federation for attempting to dance according to his own style.  This makes Scott and Fran even more determined to dance and to win the competition.

 They enter the competition in spite of the huge opposition from Fife and Shirley.  Fife’s bullying and corrupt methods are overturned at the conclusion.  Scott and Fran dance to the music of Love is in the Air and are joined on the ballroom floor by the whole audience.  Scott’s efforts have not only helped him win the competition but it has vindicated the reputation of his father.

 LITERARY GENRE

The film is a romantic comedy/musical that tells the story of how Scott Hastings manages to find a way to buck the system, dance his own steps, and find true love in the form of his unlikely dancing partner, Fran.  It uses parody in the ‘mockumentary’ about ballroom dancing in the opening sequences. Here Shirley is satirized frequently when she intervenes to inform the audience about the proceedings.  There are undertones of hysteria in these documentary-style interventions.  It also uses elements of farce and caricature to mock certain figures and poke fun at institutions such as Barry Fife’s Federation. It satirizes the glitzy artificiality of the ballroom competition circuit by contrasting it with the much simpler and genuine approach to dance taken by Fran’s family.

Fran and Scott must cross the bridge between these two worlds and find the freedom to grow into people who are not afraid to express themselves in the way they themselves choose.  There is more than a touch of the fairy-tale about it.  Its origins as a piece of theatre are signalled in the many features of drama that occur throughout the film.  For example, the film opens with the curtains being drawn back as in a theatre.  The action moves from the district to the state championships and on to the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix.

The film constructs its own unique world where the characters exist only to dance and win competitions.  Normal routines of family life and social life take second place to the demands of dancing.  It is a world where tradition is in conflict with innovation and change. This conflict is further heightened by the clash of cultural traditions of the old world and the new, the influence of Spanish dance versus those of the ballroom tradition.  The conflict is resolved in the final dance sequence where the new steps which draw on both traditions are seen to win.  A new equilibrium is established which respects the best of both worlds.

We need to be aware that this is a film (!) and films use various ‘tricks’ and techniques to tell their story.  The whole point of this Comparative Section is to make you more aware of these techniques and of the underlying symbolism in the story being presented before us.  Much of the imagery of a film (or a play or novel, for that matter) may only emerge after a number of viewings.  In the opinion of many, this is what makes a film great, the fact that you can watch it again and again, not just on a literal level, on the level of the story, but on a deeper metaphorical level as well.

 The Musical Score

When you listen to the music in this film you will begin to see that certain tunes become associated with certain characters or groups.  The Blue Danube Waltz is constantly linked with the Federation and the hold that it has over its members.  Once you hear this tune, even though there is no mention of Barry Fife and his organisation, you begin to realise that the power of the organisation over the individual is being asserted.  So the music acts as a symbol.  Likewise with the percussion-driven music that Scott dances to as Fran peeps in at him, and the music that Doug dances to in secret.  We have here the basic music of the individual dancer and the elaborate orchestral score of the Strauss waltz being juxtaposed.  This points up one of the major themes of the film – how an organisation can stifle individual flair and initiative.  The Flamenco music also comes to stand for something more than itself.  It symbolises the whole culture of Fran’s people, who find themselves living on the edge of Scott’s world, on the other side of the tracks, trying to keep their traditions alive in a foreign environment.

The use of the Spanish language and dance also take on symbolic significance when they are used to assert group identity and exclude outsiders.  Fran is an outsider trying to use dance to break into Scott’s world.  Scott enters Fran’s world first by trying to work out the Spanish proverb and then by using dance.

Settings

The differences and similarities between these two worlds are referred to symbolically in the settings used in the film.  There are four distinct locations within the film:

  • The competition venues
  • Scott’s home
  • Kendall’s School of Dance
  • Fran’s home

The characters must move between each one and adapt to their changing conditions.  Each setting is distinct and separate, which helps to underline the symbolic differences between them.

Certain aspects of the settings take on extra meaning e.g. the officials sit at tables that literally look down on the competing dancers.  The   worlds of Scott and Fran are separated by a bridge symbolising the distance between them.  Les Kendall’s studio has three main areas – the dance floor, the basement and the roof.  The basement is a place that Doug uses to hide away the things of his past.  The roof-top might be a symbol of the freedom that comes with dancing one’s own steps outside the confines of the rulers and regulations of the Federation.  (No doubt this is one of the reasons why Coco Cola chose this spot for their ‘product placement’ coup!)

Lighting

The spotlight in Les’ studio acts symbolically to set Doug, Scott and Fran apart from the rest of the characters in this story.  The lighting is used throughout the film to show characters in a good or bad light.  Barry Fife and Shirley are constantly shown in light that distorts their features.  The effect is added to by the close-up use of the camera.

Fairy-Tale motif

In the dressing room scene, we are expected to be able to make the connection between what is happening here and our knowledge of fairy-tales.  We are expected to be able to recognize the Evil Stepmother and the Ugly Sisters and we are reminded of an earlier scene of Fran working, sprinkling the floor of the studio, as everyone else dances around the floor.  She is represented here as a Cinderella figure who does all the work.  She finally meets Prince Charming and becomes a dazzling beauty at the ball at the film’s end!

 Costume

Items of dress, spectacles, hairpieces and hair styles all form part of the imagery of the film and take on symbolic meaning to back up the characterisation and themes of the film.  Barry Fife’s hair-piece may signify his attempt to cover up what he really is, or to put it another way, his attempts to appear to be something that he is not.  Fran’s increasing confidence is symbolised by the gradual change in her costume and ‘look’ as the film progresses.  She graduates from the sloppy white t-shirt to the elegance of her mother’s Flamenco dress (the Ugly Duckling becomes a Swan!).  This dress and Rico’s jacket may represent the continuation of the traditional Flamenco dancing in an environment that is, on the face of it, an alien one.

 Cinematic Props

Various props assume symbolic significance as we get more familiar with the film.  Doug’s camera is old-fashioned in this Netflix age.  This hints that Doug himself is somehow locked into the past.  The shop sign reading ‘closed’ may indicate the attitude of Fran’s people to those who come from ‘the other side of the tracks’.   All the photographs and trophies take on symbolic significance in the building up of character and theme.  The only thing Shirley lives for is to win trophies.  These are knocked over and cast down at the end of the film, an image of the way Scott and Fran have brought about a revolution in the world of the Australian Dance Federation.

THEMES AND ISSUES

Although Strictly Ballroom may seem to be a light romantic comedy on first viewing, there are several serious themes being explored throughout the film.

Prominent themes in Strictly Ballroom include:

  • Relationships
  • Self-expression/Self-identity
  • Power/Corruption

 RELATIONSHIPS

The most important relationships in the story revolve around Scott and Fran.  You need to examine the parent/child relationship between Scott and Fran and their parents.

Another relationships theme you could look for is ‘The individual and society’, examining the relationship between Scott and Fran and the Federation.

Many of the relationships treated in this film centre on the dancing world.  Scott is at odds with Barry Fife and his mother because of his refusal to conform to the particular style of dancing required by the Pan Pacific Competition.  When he meets Fran their relationship flourishes through their strong dancing partnership.  As a result of this Scott’s father who is originally seen as a type of outcast in his own family is seen to be a heroic figure.

However, the main relationship, the one that gives the film its romantic thrust, is the one between Fran and Scott.  She is in love with Scott from the start but he is blind to her true worth.  She lacks confidence in herself.  In the second half of the film true love wins out and we close with the lovers in each other’s arms.  This plot line is typical of the genre we call ‘Romance’.

The relationship between young people and their parents is explored in some detail in the film and the manner in which young people have to challenge their parents’ values rather than simply accept them is also explored.  There is also the added dimension that the parents in this tale are using their children to achieve what they themselves have failed to achieve.

Scott tells us that he has been training to win the Pan Pacific competitions since he was six years old.  Obviously, it was his parents who decided on this goal for him.  Part of Scott’s struggle involves him challenging the path his parents have laid out for him.  Fran too has to challenge her father and the control he tries to exert on her life.

SELF-EXPRESSION/SELF-IDENTITY

In Strictly Ballroom, identity is being explored on two levels.  On one level we have the struggle for personal identity, which all the main characters have to endure before the film’s narrative is resolved.  On another level we have a conflict of cultural as well as group identity against which the individual characters must seek to define themselves.

Initially, identity is defined in terms of insider and outsider.  As the film opens, the world of ballroom dancing is a closed and competitive world.  Within this world Scott, Shirley, Les, Barry and Liz are some of the key insiders.  They are known in terms of their success and expertise as dancers.  They have reputations and are looked up to by other people.

Doug and Fran, on the other hand, are the outsiders and are generally ignored by everyone else.  Fran has been a beginner for two years and still has no partner.  Doug, even though he is Scott’s father, is treated as something of a fool by his wife Shirley and others.

It is obvious from the way Fran is treated that this is a difficult world to break into.  When she first approaches Scott, he tries to dismiss her as ‘only a beginner’ who has no right to approach an ‘open amateur’.  He turns on her for trying to break the ‘rules’ and it is only when she points out to him how he is trying to change the rules, that he begins to realise that they have something in common.

As the film’s narrative progresses we discover the reason for Doug’s isolation from the group.  He had tried to dance his own steps, thereby breaking the rules, and was ostracised by the rest of the ballroom dancing world.  This detail establishes how strong the group identity is and how ruthless it can be to those who challenge the established order.  In the beginning Scott was unaware of the fact that his father had already tried to cultivate an individual style of dance and self-expression.  However, through Scott’s sustained efforts and with the help of Fran both characters succeed where he had failed and they go on to cultivate their own unique style of dance and triumph over the corruption of the system personified by Barry Fife and his Federation.

As a balance to the tightly controlled world of ballroom dancing the film takes us into the world of Fran’s family.  This is a world of outsiders in a cultural sense.  Their outsider status is shown through the location of their home close to the bridge and the railway tracks, both of which signify travel and distance (as well as the old cliché about being born on ‘the wrong side of the tracks’!).  It is also underlined by the family’s use of Spanish and the need for subtitles so that the audience can follow what they are saying.

Unlike the world of dance whose members are kept together and gain their identity from the rules they follow, the world of Fran’s family is bound by a common language and a tradition of values and friendship.  It too is a world which is slow to accept outsiders, as Scott discovers, but once he shows them that he understands and appreciates their values and traditions he is accepted by them.

The struggle between the two worlds is resolved in the final dance sequence of the film.  To the accompaniment of ‘Love is in the Air’, dancers, parents and audience take to the floor and mingle.  They are not dancing to the strict movements of either side but are developing a closer, more intimate style.  In a sense, a new, more inclusive identity is being created out of the old order.

Likewise, Scott and Fran’s struggle for their own personal identity is resolved by their successful challenge to the rules of ballroom dancing and their acceptance by the audience at the championships.

POWER/CORRUPTION

The film explores the nature of power and the manner in which corrupt individuals can have a controlling influence on an organisation.  In many ways Barry Fife is portrayed as a comic figure.  The constant use of close-up shots exaggerates his features and tends to make him look grotesque rather than natural.

However, there is nothing comical about the way he exerts control over the Australian Dance Federation or the manner in which he turns this control to his own ends.  At every event Barry is placed above the dancers, judging and controlling their performance.  The halls are full of reminders of his influence in the form of photographs and display stands for his videos.

He moves in a world of shadows from where he issues his orders.  He also manipulates the weaker characters such as Wayne Burns or Ken Railings in order to achieve his ends.  He is the ‘evil’ force against which the hero, Scott, must struggle.

In this way, the film can be read as a traditional fairy-tale narrative in which the forces of ‘good’ as personified by Scott and Fran must struggle against the forces of ‘evil’ as personified by Barry Fife.

GENERAL VISION AND VIEWPOINT

 The ability to withstand pressure and to fight for what one believes in becomes evident throughout the film.  Scott is forced to take a stance against his family and suffer rejection, like his father before him, in order to stand up for what he believes is right.  Fran also, is forced to confront her family and fight for her relationship with Scott.  The strength of conviction and its capacity to expose lies and deceit becomes evident as the story unfolds and the corrupt maneuverings of Fife becomes evident to everyone.

 In Strictly Ballroom the director creates a fairy-tale world in which the ‘good’ characters must struggle to overcome the ‘evil’ ones.  The film identifies with Scott’s point of view.  It is the story of his struggle to achieve his ambition of dancing his own steps.  All the other characters are judged in relation to Scott.

 As an audience,  we have a privileged viewpoint.  At all points in the film we, as audience, know more about what is happening than any of the characters.  Although there may be surprises for the characters, there is none for us until the final sequence when Doug’s intervention allows Scott and Fran to finish their dance.

 It is a point of view that allows us to relax and enjoy the spectacle of the film with its dancing set pieces without any disturbing elements of suspense or danger.  The story opens in flashback to set up the conflict between Scott and Barry Fife, which drives the narrative.  It is a film in which action, i.e. the dance set pieces, dominates character development.

 NOW VIEW THE FILM AGAIN BELOW!  MICROWAVE THAT POPCORN!

 

 

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