Take last year's terrific documentary "Mad Hot Ballroom," hoist the kids into high school, add some Hollywood formula and you've got "Take the Lead," a predictable and yet thoroughly enjoyable drama about the redemptive power of dance for a group of inner-city teenagers.
"Take the Lead" is based on the story of a real person: Pierre Dulaine, a champion ballroom dancer who in 1994 launched "Dancing Classrooms," an innovative outreach program to teach dance to New York City public-school students. (Yes, that's the program depicted in "Mad Hot Ballroom.") And while liberties have clearly been taken with Dulaine's story (in real life, for example, the program is for elementary-school students), it's inspirational all the same. The idea of dance as a vehicle for self-respect, responsibility, teamwork and dignity isn't exactly as sexy as a tango, but it's appealing.
"Take the Lead" makes us believe that these troubled kids' lives are changed by Dulaine's lessons, held during detention in a prisonlike school basement, and that Dulaine is changed by them. If it doesn't entirely convince us on other details — How did these kids get so good so fast? How did their anger and indifference dissolve so quickly? — the goodwill generated by the film turns out to be enough.
Antonio Banderas, suave as ever, plays Dulaine as an old-school charmer with a sense of humor bubbling quietly behind his perfect manners. We see him pedaling on a bicycle to a performance in his formal tuxedo, black tails blowing nattily behind him in the wind. Troubled by a late-night encounter with some young thugs outside a high school, he visits the school's tough-love principal (Alfre Woodard) and offers his services. Amused, she takes him up on it, assuming he won't last more than a day.
In detention, he meets an assortment of disaffected kids, among them a pair of bitter enemies: Rock (Rob Brown) and LaRhette (Yaya DaCosta, a real beauty). And the movie progresses, moving between the high school and Dulaine's classy dance studio where he teaches rich-looking teenagers in sweater sets. (Even the light there looks more expensive.)
There's some entirely unnecessary bitchiness from one of the studio students, who seems to be taking lessons on the side from the Wicked Witch of the West. But ultimately everything comes together precisely as you might expect, culminating in a dance contest (did you think it wouldn't?) that blends both ballroom and hip-hop, a romance, and an unexpectedly simple and lovely waltz in a magically empty ballroom.
Nobody's going to give director Liz Friedlander or screenwriter Dianne Houston any points for originality, nor does this movie hold a candle to far better ballroom films like "Strictly Ballroom" or the Japanese "Shall We Dance." But "Take the Lead" does exactly what it sets out to do as dance fantasy/date movie/urban fairy tale.
As ballroom dancing continues to enjoy a happy renaissance, encouraged by such hits as "Mad Hot Ballroom" and the TV series "Dancing with the Stars," this film rides the crest of a trend. Its primary appeal is simple and irresistible: It makes you want to dance.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org