A guide to Baz Luhrmann's 1992 Australian cinema landmark, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this week.
By
Dave Crewe

17 Aug 2017 - 3:21 PM  UPDATED 17 Aug 2017 - 3:36 PM

Strictly Ballroom is a modern Australian fairy tale, telling the story of a Prince Charming – Paul Mercurio’s Scott, the heir apparent to the local ballroom crown – and his ‘ugly duckling’ dance partner turned Disney princess, Fran (Tara Morice). Centring on the countdown to the all-important Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Dancing Championships, this is a film of love and betrayal, creativity and conservativism, song and dance.

The offscreen story of Strictly Ballroom is as much a fairy tale as the colourful tapestry it weaves onscreen. Adapted for the cinema from Baz Luhrmann’s stage play by producers Ted Albert and Tristram Miall, the film was a phenomenal success – eventually. Strictly Ballroom faced early distribution hurdles, with a prominent cinema chain dropping it “after an executive believed the film was not worthy of a cinema release.” But acceptance into the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard programme brought acclaim (and awards: the now-defunct Prix De Jeunesse, or “Youth Prize”, was bestowed upon the film) and forged a path towards local success, kicking off with its premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 20, 1992.

While the film had a mixed response from critics – Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman described it as “very familiar” with an “insolent facsimile of grand passion”, while Roger Ebert offered reserved praise to the film’s “sense of madness and mania running just beneath its surface” – it was an unequivocal success with local audiences. Raking in over 20 million dollars at the local box office – and over $80 million internationally – Strictly Ballroom remains in the top 10 highest grossing Australian films of all time a quarter of a century later.

It’s misleading to imply that Strictly Ballroom launched the careers of star Mercurio, director Luhrmann and production design Catherine Martin, given that all three were well-established on the stage beforehand. But it certainly launched them into the upper stratospheres; twenty five years later, Mercurio is synonymous with Australian dance, Luhrmann is Australia’s most successful film director (with another three films in the aforementioned box office top 10) and Martin is our most awarded Australian in Oscar history, with four golden statuettes to her name. Not bad for a scrappy Aussie film about ballroom dancing.

Interview with director Baz Luhrmann and actor Paul Mercurio of Strictly Ballroom. The Movie Show Episode 13 1992

What’s It Really About?

Cultural Conservativism

Strictly Ballroom is a work of aesthetic restlessness. Over its 94-minute runtime, Luhrmann packs the screen with sumptuous dance sequences, slapstick comedy and expressionistic homages to silent filmmaking. Edited with exaggerated affectation and rendered in vibrant, campy colours, the net effect is one of post-modernist self-parody, a film with its tongue placed firmly in its cheek. That’s clarified by its opening moments, which are cut together like a mockumentary with cast members’ talking heads narrating Scott’s ballroom experimentation with an air of disbelief. Inspired by works as diverse as Bertolt Brecht’s plays and This is Spinal Tap – while predicting modern ‘mockumentaries-but-not-really’ like Parks and Recreation and Modern Family – the prologue’s conceit establishes Strictly Ballroom as a satire of an insular, self-important art scene.

While the film does away with the mockumentary framing so swiftly you’d be forgiven for forgetting about it by the closing credits, Luhrmann nonetheless maintains his parodic take on cultural conservatism throughout. As the paragon of entrenched traditionalism – and the villain of the piece – we have Australian Dancing Federation President Barry Fife (Bill Hunter). Barry is vehemently opposed to anything that isn’t “strictly ballroom”, as exemplified by Scott’s scandalous, experimental steps in the film’s opening scene. Most of the film is an ideological battle between Scott and Barry; Scott wants to express himself through unconventional dance, but doesn’t want to upset the status quo that Barry (and Scott’s parents, themselves former dancers) represents.

It’s tempting to read Strictly Ballroom as a direct rebuke to the Australian art world; a screed imagining institutions as more interested in preserving themselves than fostering real creativity. Framing the film as an anti-establishment manifesto might be too long a bow to draw, however; there’s little to suggest that Luhrmann’s experience on the stage stifled his creativity. That said, Luhrmann did encounter plenty of resistance trying to direct this, his first feature film. When Albert and Miall requested funding from the Film Finance Corporation, they were told “get yourselves a new director”. Luhrmann himself described the struggle as a “David and Goliath journey” – the same myth he explicitly modelled his story upon. But such challenges predated the existence of the Strictly Ballroom stage play, so interpreting the film as an ‘up yours’ to the Film Finance Corporation is a stretch.

In all likelihood, Luhrmann’s film’s attacks on the Dance Federation are just… attacks on the Dance Federation. Luhrmann’s mum was a ballroom dance teacher herself (much like Scott’s parents in the film), so the director presumably grew up with more than a little exposure to the world of competitive dance. There’s a broader message about close-mindedness running through the film – a message that might be even broader than you’d think, if this Luhrmann quote is anything to go by: “It sounds incredible, but we did it at first in response to the Cold War...it was a statement that the individual is not ALWAYS without power.”

Whatever the intent, Strictly Ballroom’s moral has a simple resonance. As you’d expect, the film concludes with a triumphant scene of Scott and Fran quite literally dancing to their own beat at the Pan-Pacific Championships. We’ve learned that Barry’s tale of Scott’s father (Barry Otto) jettisoning his chances through refusing to bow to convention was a lie. We’ve learned that Barry’s reign as president was fundamentally corrupt. But, critically, we never learn who wins. While the precise target of Strictly Ballroom’s satire might be unclear, its underlying philosophy – that art is about creativity, not awards – is unmistakable.

Set report from Strictly Ballroom with cast and crew interviews. The Movie Show Episode 21 1991

Multiculturalism

Anchoring Strictly Ballroom’s take on culture and creativity is the romance between Scott and Fran. For the most part, it’s a classic ‘ugly duckling’/Cinderella storyline; Fran is introduced with acne and glasses, but concludes the film with nothing on her face. Well, except for a pash with Scott. It’s a clichéd storyline that only succeeds because of Luhrmann’s trademark ability to balance sincerity with self-parody; Scott and Fran’s romance is at once breathlessly derivative and hopelessly real. Their romance is primarily sold through their shared dance sequences, with the director comparing it to classic Fred Astaire films like Top Hat: “It was story, story, story and now the main emotional moment will be told through dance.”

But Scott and Fran’s burgeoning relationship represents more than just classic Hollywood romance. Fran comes from a Spanish-speaking immigrant background, and this difference implicitly contributes to her exclusion from the white ballroom dancing community. This background proves crucial to the second half of the film, with Scott and Fran learning the ‘real’ version of the traditional Spanish Paso Doble dance – as opposed to the milquetoast, ‘strictly ballroom’ version – from Fran’s father Rico (Antonio Vargas). So it’s a Spanish kind of dance – expressionistic, emotional, free – that sets them apart from their peers and competitors in the film’s finale.

Generously, this can be read as an advocacy of Australian multiculturalism, pointing to a future where white supremacy – as embodied by Barry Fife – is overthrown in favour of collaboration, acceptance and originality. That certainly seems to be Luhrmann’s intent, per his comments from this interview: “The Anglo world took the Paso Doble, which is a dance of expression, and put a whole lot of rules on it, and made it about winning. Whereas in Fran’s family, dancing is a tradition, it comes from life, it is an expression of life.”

James Bennett, Professor in Television and Digital Culture, remains unconvinced by Strictly Ballroom’s take on multiculturalism in Australia. In his essay ‘Head On: multicultural representations of Australian identity in 1990s national cinema’, he argues that Strictly Ballroom “remains problematic for a number of reasons… the dominant are able to learn from the Other, thus governing their access to a place within the representation of multicultural Australian identity: for Strictly Ballroom white identity therefore remains at the core of Australian-ness.”

Indeed, the story of Fran, her family, and her cultural heritage is secondary to Scott’s journey throughout Strictly Ballroom. Scott’s success (in regaining the respect of the ballroom community, if not necessarily the Pan-Pacific Championship) is thanks to what he has learned from Spanish dance, yet it’s his story – the story of white Australia – that is privileged in the film. Strictly Ballroom’s version of Australian multiculturalism is appropriative rather than utopian – and thus, it’s perhaps the most realistic element of this fantastical film.

What to Watch Next

If you’re watching Strictly Ballroom for the first time, it’s hard to suggest following it up with anything other than Luhrmann’s subsequent films, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge. Together, these three films form the director’s “Red Curtain Trilogy”, founded on arch artifice and abundant emotionality. I’d argue that Strictly Ballroom remains the strongest film in this trilogy – and, indeed, Luhrmann’s entire filmography – but if you’re a fan, you’ll find much to love in his later works.

You also might want to keep an eye out for future productions of Strictly Ballroom the Musical; while it’s not currently touring, the popularity of this stage show suggests you won’t have to wait too long for it to reappear.

Finally, if you’re a big fan of dance, you may already be watching something inspired by Strictly Ballroom without realising it. British dance series Strictly Come Dancing – now in its 14th season – was inspired by the film and in turn has since inspired countless spinoffs. Including, most notably, Dancing with the Stars.

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