by Sheri Boggs
If "A life lived in fear is a life half- lived" sounds vaguely familiar, in fact sounds a bit like "The greatest thing you'll ever learn is just to love, and be loved in return," it's no small coincidence. The first tagline comes from Strictly Ballroom, Baz Luhrmann's exhilarating 1992 directorial debut; the second, of course, comes from his release last summer, Moulin Rouge. And watching Strictly Ballroom again after 10 years, it's easy to see the trajectory of Luhrmann's work: how the high camp and strong visual imagery of his first film flowed into his second, the wildly kinetic passion of Romeo + Juliet, and how both of these culminated in the sensory overload of Moulin Rouge.
But where Moulin Rouge is an extraordinary bit of eye candy, Strictly Ballroom is something far more satisfying. What we have here is a movie that begins as a documentary about the world of ballroom dancing. We discover that young Scott (Paul Mercurio) has been groomed to win the Pan Pacific Grand Prix practically since birth, pushed wholeheartedly by his shrieky, bleached-blonde dance-instructor mum. But Scott has been developing steps of his own -- non-regulation "crowd-pleasing steps," which he trots out in the first of the film's many dance competition sequences. When Scott's partner subsequently dumps him, he is approached by Fran (Tara Morice), a gawky student at his parents' dance school, wearing what production designer Catherine Martin calls "the most horrible pink T-shirt of all time." Fran offers to be Scott's partner -- a beautifully audacious move, which suddenly vaults the movie into new, richer territory.
I could talk about the film for another 500 words, but I also want to say a few things about the DVD. The biggest extra is the half-hour 1986 Australian documentary Samba to Slow Fox, which Luhrmann says inspired him to write this film. There are some hilarious, Waiting for Guffman-esque moments here, and the commentary with Luhrmann, Catherine Martin and choreographer John O'Connell is interesting as well. We even learn that the man who plays Fran's father is a championship flamenco dancer and that his costumes -- all suede boots and dark ruffled shirts -- are actually his own clothes. All in all, this isn't as dazzling a DVD package as Moulin Rouge, but in the end, that's just fine.