Since the success of last year’s dance documentary Mad Hot Ballroom, Hollywood has thrown together a formulaic narrative riff on the idea of New York public school students learning ballroom dance as a way of socializing poor kids out of their lower class traps. Antonio Banderas saunters through his performance in a glorified rendition of real-life ballroom dance teacher Pierre Dulaine, who brings classical dance training to bear on a group of tin-eared hip hop-crazed high school misfits.
Forget that the real life Dulaine taught much younger elementary school kids because this is by no means a biopic. Director of Photography Alex Nepomniaschy (Narc) fumbles with where to put the camera to capture JoAnn Jansen’s ill-conceived choreography. Every sub-plot wilts on the vine in a redundant movie lacking narrative focus.
Beware the words, “feature film debut of veteran music video and commercial director.” You can barely speak the well-worn phrase without spitting. In this case, Liz Friedlander proudly wears the crown of thorns that signals an inability to create any narrative arc that stretches for more than three minutes.
The movie starts out with a cliche montage of divergent characters dressing up for a night out on the town. Pierre Dulaine shines his black leather shoes while ghetto kid Rock (Rob Brown—Finding Forrester) primps in front of his bathroom mirror before needlessly taking off his button down shirt so that his alcoholic father can vomit on it. Pierre rides his bicycle to a dance function while Rock is refused admittance to his high school’s hip-hop party.
A couple of hoodlums taunt Rock into vandalizing the school principal’s car with a golf club before he’s seen committing the violent act by Pierre. This petty set-up allows Pierre to find Principal Augustine’s (Alfre Woodard) parking permit that he dutifully returns to the school the next day to give her.
The wobbly tone of the movie is somewhere between teen comedy and drama with an emphasis on an inevitable clash of musical and dance styles. The well-dressed Pierre is challenged by Augustine’s cynicism toward his mannered nature in the context of her largely doomed student body. Pierre volunteers his dance teaching services for the delinquent kids relegated to after school detention, and has his bicycle stripped for his altruistic efforts.
Before Pierre can teach his random batch of problem kids the names of the classical dances in the repertoire, they are busy mixing in freeform hip-hop dance steps. The students soon butcher standards like Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” with hip-hop beats that create a musical fusion. All suspension of disbelief is jettisoned as the screenwriters, director, and choreographer press the untrained dancers toward a citywide dance competition that serves as the denouement of the movie.
The filmmakers proclaim that Take The Lead is “inspired by the life of Pierre Dulaine,” but the dance teacher’s name seems utilized more to endorse a product that never earned approval. As a dance movie Take The Lead is downright incompetent, and as a feel-good teen drama/comedy it has no pathos or humor. It’s a throwaway movie. MTW