The recent documentary Mad Hot Ballroom depicts a successful program, in New York public elementary schools, to teach ballroom dance to kids. Smelling a feel-good picture, Hollywood came knocking on the door of Pierre Dulaine, the real-life dance instructor who brought dance from his studio to public-school classrooms. Unfortunately, the resulting "inspired by a true story" picture—called Take the Lead—is filled to bursting with dramatic lies about Dulaine's "Dancing Classrooms" program.
Taking this much liberty with a true story can only be justified two ways: by leaving off the bogus "inspired by a true story" bait, or making the fiction transcendent. But director Liz Friedlander (a music video vet) must trumpet the story's real-life origin, and, in the latter case, she doesn't even try. Why bother, when star power, music, and flashy visuals will do?
For starters, screenwriter Dianne Houston moves Dulaine's story into high school, the better to tease out crime drama and horny sexuality. Sleek, funny, charming Dulaine (played by sleek, funny, charming Antonio Banderas) offers his services to Alfre Woodard's principal, who hires him as a goof because she needs someone to babysit detention kids. But when he takes the opportunity to teach these academic cast-offs the joys of self-worth and culture ("I have my own methods," he says, with velvety self-assurance), suddenly Dulaine's the Galileo of dance, with the unreasonably resistant principal and the rest of the school all but ready to burn him at the stake for his threatening innovation.
You know how the story goes: the dance remains the same. A diverse group of kids resists Dulaine's dance (and life!) lessons, but slowly comes over to his way of thinking, built around the primary tactic of confidence building. "Ballroom dancing is for kings and empresses," he says, but these kids from the 'hood will also teach the teacher, getting him to see that Q-Tip can be as great as Lena Horne. In a scene built laughably around an instant remix (actually the slavishly produced soundtrack cut "I Like That You Can't Take That Away from Me"), the kids teach Banderas about mash-ups, a metaphor for the happy clash of street and studio. "Two songs," Banderas purrs. "At once. This is a beautiful idea."
Bonds develop: romantic ones between unlikely bedfellows and platonic ones with the keepin'-it-real teach. The primary conflict is some very bad blood between a boy named Rock (Rob Brown of Coach Carter) and a girl named LaRhette (Yaya DaCosta)—naturally, the two become dance partners and more. Rock still has a foot in thug life: will he make it to...the dance competition? (Did I mention the dance competition?) Among the other predictable subplots is the story of an uptown girl who, shunned by the dance snobs, asks Dulaine to let her sit in with his public-school detention kids. She's training for a cotillion that's on the same night as the big dance competition. (Did I mention the dance competition?)
Friedlander's opening fifteen minutes show considerable promise. An initial montage shows the characters getting ready—each in his or her distinct way—for a night on the town, and Banderas' first time in the school office is both wittily scripted and nicely observed. But then everyone seems to give up any sense of reality, favoring a constant stream of insults to the audience. In a good example of the script's baffling puppeteering, Banderas' studio co-worker keeps flittering through scenes to give him grief about the public school program, then suddenly offers to pay the kids' competition fees. She also starts making goo-goo eyes at Dulaine, who we learn—at a convenient point in the two-hour-long film—is a widow of five years.
It's all pure formula, embarrassingly, laughably overheated dramedy that you'll recognize from dozens of other films (Footloose, Dirty Dancing, Dangerous Minds, Save the Last Dance, and Mr. Holland's Opus to name but a few). When Friedlander flirts with reality (a brief scene in which Rock assaults his father), she nastily puts Jerry Springer giving his "Final Thought" on the TV in the background. But the trashiness is all Friedlander's: blatantly contrived and tidy, Take the Lead has exactly two things going for it (each worth one star): the always entertaining Antonio Banderas and a lot of ballroom dancing.