Oct 20, 2000
The first lesson of this film is: Make it authentic. If you are going behind the scenes, you better be right. Not here. A Republican wants to try to hold up a vice presidential nomination. No one would care. The President nominates someone who switched from Republican to Democrat. Wouldn't happen. A freshman congressman joins forces with an opposition leader to stop his own President's appointment for VP. Not in a million years. A woman accused of having sex with two men strolls the grounds of the White House with the president while both are smoking cigars. Right. The Republican leader opposes the Senator because she is a woman, and cares nothing about the fact that she is an atheist. Not in my lifetime.
The other lesson is: Make your hero drive the action. This lead character, who is accused of improper sexual behavior, is treated as a punching bag for the entire film. She doesn't do anything but sit there with a stiff upper lip. Basic story stuff, and it's still true.
Clearly the British are learning from Hollywood. Billy Elliot is the BBC version of Rocky, with a few elements from Flashdance and How Green Was My Valley thrown in as well. I kept waiting for the kid to open his arms wide and sing, "Gotta dance!"
But if this is formula moviemaking, it's a formula that works. This kid's success makes you feel good, no matter how jaded you are or how much you notice the strings of manipulation.
The formulaic quality of this film may be why the writers back off of two key moments that could have been bigger. One is when Billy first becomes intrigued with ballet. There is very little sense of why he would be so inspired to dance, before he has actually done it. Yes, the movie opens with him bouncing on his bed and working his body to the music. But that's not enough in an environment that is so hostile to dance.
The second moment is the end when Billy goes in for his audition. The Flashdance version has our hero going through an amazing display of acrobatic dance that has the judges and the audience tapping their feet by the end. But this movie pins Billy's success on what he says about dance. His physical display of greatness has happened earlier in the film when he is frustrated from going to an audition and dances all over the city.
This frustration dance is a brilliant scene, and the actor playing the kid is fantastic. This is dance as modern art, where the artist uses everyday things to make his art. Billy uses stairs, walls, and railings to express how he feels. And it is a dance that is both amazingly accomplished but also obviously untrained. This is a very difficult combination to show, and the choreographer and the lead actor both deserve great credit.
Notice they also cheat this moment in the setup. Until then Billy has been a hard-working klutz. Suddenly, when he is deprived of his chance to try out, he dances like a raw Baryshnikov. But the writers probably didn't want to blow the power of the scene by showing the audience earlier that the boy really is good.
This movie is also guilty of flipping the repressive figures of the father and the older brother too quickly. Dad goes from being a nasty, homophobic bully to being a saint who goes back into the coal mines to help his boy learn to dance.
Billy Elliot is mainly worth studying to see how the writers take the genre and both hit all the beats that make it work and twist certain beats to make it seem new.