All right, I admit it. I'm a sucker for Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald,
George and Ira Gershwin, and Jerome Kern. The fox-trot and merengue make me
smile. Maybe that's why a film inspired by the true story of Manhattan dance
instructor Pierre Dulaine had such initial appeal for me. I figured, what's not
to like about a movie about a guy who teaches kids respect and self-esteem
through a graceful discipline? But I've observed Hollywood long enough to know
that when you run a great idea through the West Coast assembly machine, you
always have to be wary of what comes out the other end.
In Take the Lead, Dulaine, a dance academy owner, sees a teen vandalizing a
car belonging to his high school principal. Instead of going to the police to
report the crime, he approaches the principal the following day with a unique
idea. He proposes to volunteer his time and teach her students to ballroom
dance. After she stops laughing long enough to breathe, she realizes that he
might just fill a need as an unpaid babysitter and sticks him in with the
Because of some recent school vandalism, the group of delinquents are being
"held" in a room in the school basement. This spacious room will serve Dulaine's
The suave gentleman instructor and his sneering students initially mix like
fire and gasoline. However, with patience and unwavering determination, he
slowly wins them over.
In spite of the fact that everyone mocks his efforts, Dulaine sees something
special in the kids and refuses to give up on them. In contrast to the
principal, who roams the halls barking orders like a commandant, he shows
concern and respect for the students and motivates them to reach for their best.
When he encourages them to participate in a ballroom competition, they think
he's crazy. One says, "Only some people get the s--- they want!" Dulaine
retorts, "That's true. Those are the people who show up to get it." Statements
like this inspire the kids to give his style of dance a try. With a little
experimentation they create a new fusion of his music and theirs (classic jazz
layered over urban beats) and give birth to something they all find exciting.
Dulaine also pairs the kids as partners, spurring them to overcome their
differences and pull together. For example, two students mend fences after
months of blame over a gang death. A couple of guys, competing over the same
dance partner, learn to put aside their jealousies and cooperate as a trio. An
awkward uptown girl decides to join in and develops meaningful relationships
with the ethnic teens even though they're reluctant to accept her at first. In
fact, without regard for crusty social expectations, she invites her heavy-set
black dance partner to escort her to her coming-out reception.
Later, a group of parents want to shut down the dance classes because they
seem pointless in this day and age. Dulaine stresses the fact that developing a
discipline teaches the students to trust themselves, respect one another, and
find a sense of dignity. (He is so convincing that a parent request lessons,
too.) His words are put to the test as the kids face their individual problems
and begin to make positive choices. Rock, for example, continues to give his
parents money even after he's been told to leave. Later, he foils a robbery that
his gangsta friends are attempting and walks away from his association with
In the meantime, a rivalry grows between the poor detention kids and the rich
academy kids as they come into contact with each other. But it is resolved on
the dance floor when they gain a newfound respect for one another's talents.
Larhette, one of the teenage girls from detention, lives with her mom who is
prostituting herself. Larhette is babysitting her siblings when her mom and a
client enter and walk to the bedroom. Later, a client comes to the door looking
for Mom and ends up propositioning Larhette. When she turns him down he grabs
her by the shoulders, wrestling and kissing in an obvious attempt to force
himself sexually on her. (He is stopped only by Mom's arrival.)
The steamier moments in the movie are actually dance scenes. An older student
from the academy demonstrates a tango with Dulaine for the high schoolers. Her
sultry physicality and sensual movements are defined as "sex on hardwood," which
is eminently appropriate. There are cleavage, leg and partial buttocks shots.
There are also a few "booty shakes" and crotch grabbing motions that take place
when kids grind to hip-hop. During the big ballroom dance-off at the end of the
movie, three of the students dance an "improvised" version of a tango that
depicts two guys fighting over the sensual pleasures (kissing, full clinching
embraces) of their female partner.
When we first meet Rock, he is being coaxed by his gang-member friends to
hit a car with a golf club. Though reluctant at first, when pushed he unleashes
pent-up rage on the vehicle. When he goes home, he questions why there isn't
food in the house and his drunken father punches him. They tussle and the boy
pushes his dad back against the wall. Dad yells at him to leave and not come
Later, Rock finds out that the leader of the gang he's been hanging with is
the same person who killed his brother. Rock points a gun at him, but shoots a
nearby pipe instead, setting off an alarm. For sparing the thug's life, he gets
punched in the face.
Take the Lead has foul language scattered throughout, seemingly in an attempt
to present us with believable inner-city kids. Included are a dozen uses each of
the s-word, "h---" and "a--" (the incarnation of choice being "punk a--"), and
two pairings of God with "d--n."
Rock's father is an obvious drunk, evidenced by his slurred speech and
drunken vomiting. We never see him drink, but a near-empty quart beer bottle is
in their fridge. Dulaine has a glass of wine on his dinner table that a student
grabs. (The teacher takes the glass back and no one drinks from it.)
At the beginning of the film, gang wars have killed off a number of students
including Rock's and Larhett's brothers. The kids take all this in stride.
They're used to the darkness of their world just like they're used to the bump
'n' grind of their music, but Dulaine and his polite dancing throws them off
kilter. When they're assigned dance partners, the guys go to great lengths to
try to shock the girls. For example, Dulaine asks them to take hands and one
girl objects that she doesn't know where her partner's hands have been. The kid
says, "I'll show ya," and shoves his hands down the front of his pants. Another
time, Dulaine shows up at class to find an expensive new stereo system in the
room. The boys purport to have "borrowed it." They're not very convincing,
especially since Rock and his gang have been surreptitiously selling some kind
of contraband out of a van.
One other unfortunate choice by the moviemakers was to represent the school's
teacher population with a grouchy instructor stereotype who never wants to give
the kids a break. The intent was to show a contrast to Dulaine's enthusiasm, but
the result implies that teachers don't really care about any but the A-level
A Tinseltown movie team is such a strange artistic conglomerate. You have
producers, writers, a director, actors, crew and corporate execs all tossing in
their creative fodder and hoping that the outcome will be something transcending
compost. Most often, we end up with a film that duplicates much of what has gone
before, which is precisely what happens with Take the Lead.
The concept is not a new one°™rough-edged kids are offered a hand up by a
caring adult. It's been played over and over again ever since the classic film
Blackboard Jungle. The twist here is the addition of ballroom dancing. A twist
which, on the plus side, director Liz Friedlander takes advantage of with
polished dance scenes and evocative visuals. Similarly, Antonio Banderas creates
a compelling, debonair instructor who we want to root for.
But from there, Take the Lead has only two left feet. It relies heavily on
typecasting and scenarios from various films of the last decade°™the white kid
who thinks he's a "playa," the hot-headed brooder with a drunken father, a class
full of rejects who suddenly turn a corner and dance like Juilliard
grads°™instead of the original story's natural charm.
Add in a larceny-minded gang leader and a prostitute mother. Then turn up the
sensual thermostat and you have the same ol' song and dance instead of a
graceful twirl 'round the ballroom floor.