Take the Lead

on April 07, 2006 by Mark Keizer
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In its original 1937 contract with the major studios, the Screen Actors Guild must have slipped in the proviso that every actor in Hollywood play an inspirational teacher. In deciding whose turn it is to straighten out these kids today and their rock music, the union doesn't go in alphabetical order. Because after Robert Donat ("Goodbye, Mr. Chips"), Sidney Poitier ("To Sir, With Love"), Kevin Kline ("The Emperor's Club"), Glenn Ford ("Blackboard Jungle"), Richard Dreyfuss ("Mr. Holland's Opus"), Robin Williams ("Dead Poets Society"), Edward James Olmos ("Stand and Deliver), Michelle Pfeiffer ("Dangerous Minds") and countless others comes Antonio Banderas. In "Take the Lead", he portrays real-life ballroom dance instructor Pierre Dulaine (creator of the New York dance program chronicled in the documentary "Mad Hot Ballroom"), who teaches detention to a group of unruly inner city kids. And since detention isn't something that can be taught (you either get it or you don't), he instead teaches them to foxtrot, tango and perform other ancient dance steps that don't require belly shirts and tattoos. In a genre that's been ground into dust, "Take the Lead" pretty much succumbs to its every pitfall. But the film has some aces that, while not fully emerging from its sleeve, do manage to peek out from the cuffs.

Returning home one evening from his dance academy, the debonair Dulaine witnesses teenage bad seed Rock (Rob Brown) take a golf club to the car of Augustine James (Alfre Woodard), his hard-nosed high school principal. But instead of turning him in, Dulaine offers to teach Rock and his fellow detention-mates a few lessons in dance, hoping the sophistication of the ballroom arts will smooth out their rough edges. James takes Dulaine up on his offer, if only because nobody else is fool enough to voluntarily spend time with such delinquents.

The kids are the usual assortment of troublemakers and most of these teen and (let's face it) post-teen actors find a way to perform their roles without reverting to hip-hop levels of posing or artifice. The main attractions are Rock and the pretty LaRhette (Yaya DaCosta) whose brothers were competing gang members. On Dulaine's second day he introduces the kids to Lena Horne and Dinah Washington and they're horrified by the offensive noise. But over time, their resistance melts, especially when Dulaine treats them to a smoldering tango with a gorgeous professional. This gets them to appreciate the value of dancing, or at least the value of touching hot members of the opposite sex while dancing.

All of this unfolds within formula boundaries, but screenwriter Dianne Houston respects her teen creations and, from a character standpoint, never panders to the target audience. Plotwise, there are a handful of nice moments that keep the audience attentive, including a neat scene with Dulaine in the principal's waiting room trying to teach a youngster the forgotten art of holding the door open for a lady. But just when it looks like the film will fully break from the pack, it introduces another tired element. Pulling the narrative earthbound is the introduction of a dance competition in which the kids would compete with seasoned ballroom veterans. It's an artificial construct meant to give the story someplace to go, while insuring a dance-filled, soundtrack-friendly climax. Such a rousing yet phony musical denouement makes sense considering director Liz Friedlander learned the trade by helming over 80 music videos. Not surprising given her training, she clutters the screen with slick transitions and other directorial hoo-haw. Yet even Friedlander knows to step aside for Banderas. He plays the bicycle-riding, sophisticated Dulaine as handsome, suave and commanding but not anachronistic or twee. It's his movie all the way and, despite significant concessions to genre requirements, he wins us over the same way he wins over his students: He kills us with class. Starring Antonio Banderas and Rob Brown. Directed by Liz Friedlander. Written by Dianne Houston. Produced by Diane Nabatoff, Michelle Grace and Christopher Godsick. A New Line release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for thematic material, language and some violence. Running time: 117 min

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