Dir: Liz Friedlander. US.2006. 118mins.
The cathartic joy of dance gets drained away by thepredictable rhythms of formulaic and obvious storytelling in Take The Lead. Basedon the true story of a teacher's quest to impart the respect and dignity offormal dance to delinquent high schoolers, the debutfeature from music video director Liz Friedlander makes for an achingly sincerebut rather boring tale.
New Line mustsurely hope that the picture ' which opens wide in the US on April 7 ' emulates2001's Save The Last Dance, whichcaught fire with a $23m domestic opening en route to over $130m in cumulativereceipts, or even the more aggressively urbanised You Got Served, which bowed to $16m in2004.
While a recoupingof its relatively modest budget seems certain when collective theatrical boxoffice is tallied up, Take The Leadshould dance off with most of its profits from the home video market, where itsprescribed and wan emotional manipulations will play best to a less demandingaudience.
The story centres on Pierre Dulaine (Banderas), a widowed, New York ballroom instructor who runshis own successful business teaching foxtrot etiquette to privileged universityundergrads.
One night Pierrewitnesses a young high school student, Rock (Brown), smashing up what turns outto be his principal's car. Rather than report the identity of Rock, however,Pierre goes to meet the inner city school's headmaster, the unyieldingAugustine James (Woodard), and volunteers his time to teach ballroom dancing toa diverse group of students serving out a semester's worth of after-schooldetention.
The students are initiallysceptical of Pierre, but his unwavering dedicationslowly inspires them to embrace the programme, and hebecomes an unlikely mentor. Fusing his classical dance music and moves withtheir own high-energy hip-hop style, the students - including narcissisticRamos (Basco), guarded LaRhette(DaCosta) and Rock - band together and prepare for anend-of-term, formal citywide competition that will test their commitment andteamwork.
Dianne Houston'sscreenplay offers up wafer-thin characterisations 'the second act revelation that Pierre is a widow is surprising both in its latetiming and lack of relevance ' and is constructed almost wholly ofprefabricated parts nipped from every other teen movie in which brusque urbanbehavior either rubs up against haughty suburban entitlement and/or iscountered by the headstrong nature of a devoted coach or educator.
This means Take The Lead has to play out storystrands of not only rivals with a heated familial grudge (Rock's older brotherwas shot dead by LaRhette's brother, also nowdeceased), but also an obligatory love triangle, a compulsory dissection of bi-racialattraction and a warm and fuzzy decree on the acceptance of weight. The commonthread amongst these subplots is the gracelessness of their rendering.
Friedlander isbest known for her kinetic style of music video direction but here the camerafrequently settles on the script's many numbing platitudes ("You don't have todance for anyone but yourself," intones Pierre) with a staid, point-and-shootunaffectedness decidedly at odds with her past experience.
Antonio Banderas has the dancing talent to make good in the fewscenes he's required, but dramatically he's given quite little with which towork. Alfre Woodard, meanwhile, dips into harridanterritory in her role as Augustine James.
The one performerwho does make a consistently strong impression is former America's Next Top Model contestant Yaya DaCosta in her feature film debut. With a striking yetsoulful face and a pleasantly underplayed sense of hurt ' particularly inscenes where LaRhette's prostitute mother's tricksturn up at their apartment ' DaCosta shows admirablerange and instinct.
The musicalcollaborations, meanwhile, of Aaron Zigman (The Notebook) and hip-hop producer Swizz Beatz make for someinteresting moments. They include the mash-up of Eric B & Rakim's I Like Thatand George and Ira Gershwin's They Can'tTake That Away From Me, and a three-to-tango finale that is at leastcreatively staged, if of dubious dramatic believability.
New Line Cinema
Tiara Blu Films
New Line Cinema
Paul Denham Austerberry