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Sunday, April 09, 2006

Take the Lead

How many people remember the episode of Friends where the boys made a list of the five women they could be intimate with and not consider it cheating because these women were just so hot no one could blame them? I’ve never made one of those lists, but if I did Antonio Banderas would definitely be on it. I even get excited when I hear his voice as the “changed bee” on that commercial for Nasonex. There is nothing of Antonio’s work that I wouldn’t sit through just to enjoy those dreamy eyes and that glorious accent of his. Nothing. And I think I proved it by going to the Essex Cinemas on Friday to see Take the Lead.

Take the Lead is based on the real life story of New York dancer Pierre Dulaine, the co-artistic
director and founder of the American Ballroom Theater Company. He has been on the faculties of the School of American Ballet (New York City Ballet) and the Juilliard School at Lincoln Center for many years, and he is the founder of a program to bring ballroom dancing into the New York Public School System as a way to teach young people self-respect, discipline, achievement, and honor. Take the Lead is the story of his first foray in starting what is now a wildly successful program serving thousands of New York City kids each year.

Here he is simply “Mr. Dulaine,” who witnesses an act of vandalism one night in front of a high school and shows up the following Monday with an offer to teach a class in ballroom dancing as a way of helping out in the community. Needless to say, his offer is met with immediate incredulity by
the principal, Augustine James, played by Desperate Housewives’ Alfre Woodard as if she was running a maximum security penitentiary. She thinks Dulaine is a few fries short of a Happy Meal and takes him down to the basement where she offers him those students who are spending the entire semester in detention for whatever severe infractions warrant such a punishment. Here, this motley group of misfits raises hell, curses, dances to hip-hop, and basically wastes their time until they are released back into the wilds of the Bronx until the next day. Augustine chuckles as she walks away, figuring either Dulaine will run away never to be seen again or the kids will eat him. It’s never quite clear, but both possibilities seem logical.

Instead, Dulaine stays, and, naturally, over the course of the next hour, we see the kids beneath the tough facades and learn a little bit about how difficult their lives are and how they have gotten to the point of being considered rejects and losers. You know how that goes. Two hate one another because their brothers killed each other in a crack deal gone bad, one’s mother is a hooker who brings her johns home and forces her daughter to baby-sit the results of her work and sleep in the living room while Mom “entertains”, one is a wingman with a group of thieves, and then there is the pitiful story of the drunken parents who suck up all of junior’s earnings from his after-detention job on booze so there is no food in the house.

This is supposed to melt our hearts and make us feel warm and cuddly about these kids, but after having watched them spend the first hour talking bluer than what you’d hear in a compilation of a dozen or so Soprano episodes, dealing drugs, destroying property, and shaking their “moneymakers” in one another’s faces it is hard to look on these kids as the Von Trapp Family escaping from the Nazis. Take the Lead’s basic problem is that it wants to be Fame for dancing and capitalize on the hot success of tv's Dancing with the Stars but it combines the wrong
elements in doing so. While Fame had its’ hard edges, the characters came before the singing and dancing and that’s what made them all the more delicious. It was like finding out your friends had hidden talents you didn’t know. Here, it is like finding out that Son of Sam can Samba or that Jeffrey Dahmer does a mean Foxtrot. None of the principal characters is developed enough to make you like them, including Dulaine, who seems an enigma through most of the film.

Banderas is a sexy dancer, and he does have one prolonged scene where he has one of the advanced students from his “real” school come in and they do a Tango that will leave you, as it did the kids in the basement, begging for more. Indeed, the dancing in Take the Lead is great, but it is marred by Texas Chainsaw editing and a script that doesn’t seem to know what to make of itself. The idea of
combining ballroom dancing and the music of the 1930s and ‘40s with the rhythms of today’s hip hop culture is a great premise. It just doesn’t seem to gel well in this instance. Don’t get me wrong. The actors all do fine jobs in their roles. Antonio is earnest. Rob Brown (Coach Carter; Finding Forrester) is good as the sullen and most troubled of Dulaine’s students, and YaYa Decosta, of America's Next Top Model fame, makes a good-enough debut as his nemesis/love interest. The other kids are obviously all professional dancers and adequate in the limited acting roles they are given, so the elements for success are all there. The only thing missing is the heart of the story, which first-time feature director Liz Friedlander, thinks won’t be noticed if everybody just keeps on dancing.

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