Despair, discovery and delight in a ballroom: dubby’s DVdiscussion

Dubby Bhagat


The phrase, “Shall We Dance” comes from the old Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, “The King And I” which made Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr practically immortal. Then in 1996 Japanese director Masayuki Suo took the phrase and made a movie with it as a title and won eight Japanese Oscars. The film, ‘Shall We Dance?’ was described variously by critics as “beautifully realised,” “charming” and “delightful”. What with the praise and the prizes the 2004 American version of ‘Shall We Dance?’ not standing a chance with the critics. who made the mistake of comparing the Japanese and the American versions much to the discredit of the big star movie with Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon and Jenifer Lopez acting in it.

Okay it’s a remake, but it was remade on another continent with different mores and manners, with a different lifestyle, with different ambitions, feelings, and different everything. So when critic David Levine said that, “ The American version is a melodramatic, nightmare”, he is comparing because he is showing off and as we know comparisons are odious. Personally I would use all the phrases that were used to describe the Japanese version and add a few observations of my own. Like saying that here is a film that deftly sketches a host of characters and balances Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon and Jenifer Lopezes performances against the portrayal of the supporting stars. They come off as equally important and contribute enormously to the many delights of ‘Shall We Dance?’

Over to critic Jeff Shannon who says, “A weary lawyer (Richard Gere) battles his mid-life crisis with ballroom dancing lessons, while his wife (Susan Sarandon) hires a private detective to see if he’s cheating. Those expecting a Jennifer Lopez showcase will be disappointed; her role as the melancholy dance instructor keeps the beautifully love lorn J-Lo on the sidelines, while a cast of supporting characters (especially Stanley Tucci’s clandestine faux-Latin dance lover) provide a generous dose of Hollywood-ized comic relief. All of this gives ‘Shall We Dance?’ a polished sheen of mainstream entertainment that many viewers — and especially ballroom dancers — will find delightfully irresistible.”

The ballroom becomes a metaphor for life and you have it all: The dance school owner who has to drink to carry on, the bitchy, hard bitten dancer who insists on telling horrible truths until we discover the reality of her desperate life, the fat dancer who hopes to lose weight and gain a wife, the apprentice who wants to score girls, the detective who tries to patch up a marriage he sees falling apart and his assistant who quotes from existential philosophers and Thoreau. As the plot develops the tawdry ballroom becomes a place where dreams and aspirations gather and become reality. The characters achieve a degree of grace, in more senses than the obvious one, they did not have to begin with. ‘Shall We Dance?’ is about the philosophy of dance, the politics of life and the business of overcoming the crises that beset us all from time to time.

This all sounds dreadfully serious. It isn’t. ‘Shall We Dance?’ is fun, beautiful, touching and has great music that lifts it along with brilliant dancing to heights that have made it a box office hit, critics not withstanding. Look out for tunes like “Moon River”, “Sway”, “Bridges of Paris”, “Perfida” and the song “The Book Of Love” by Peter Gabriel.

The last word this week goes to director Baz Luhrmann’s first movie, ‘Strictly Ballroom (1992)’. My friend Helen Marsden from Australia sent me a copy of my most favourite Aussie movie ever made it was described by Martin and Porter as, “The garish visual style is given heart in this offbeat Cinderella tale of a male dancer who breaks with the rules of ballroom dancing and the wallflower who dreams of being his partner. While not for all tastes, this off-killer musical has remarkable warmth .”

Leo Maltin adds, “Spirited, allegorical musical about a young competitive ballroom dancer (Mercurio) who outrages his mother and the establishment,” by insisting on dancing his own provocative steps: he takes on a new ugly duckling partner (Morice) who blooms under his tutelage. This crowd-pleaser sacrifices credibility for caricature but despite its rough edges emerges a winner.

The point is this, Strictly Ballroom made in 1992 inspired the Japanese, Shall We Dance? and nobody made any comparisons . We must learn to treat every offering as unique, we must learn to judge on individual merits and Shall We Dance? (2004) is unique and has merits aplenty. See it and have a ball.