Strictly Ballroom Special Edition (DVD Review)

Baz Luhrmann got his big break by directing Strictly Ballroom which of course led to William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and the final installment of his Red Curtain Trilogy Moulin Rouge, which was then followed by Australia.  Like most of his movies, Strictly Ballroom is highly theatrical and has a heightened drama to it that can either help a film (Moulin Rouge), or can hurt it (Romeo and Juliet).  This movie unfortunately falls into the latter camp.

The movie originated as an improvised play by Luhrmann and Andrew Bovell back in 1986 and as it grew more polished, it became mores successful and even played at the Sydney Opera House.  Film produces Ted Albert and his business partner Tristam Miall approached Luhrmann in 1988, about adapting the play into a musical and possibly a film.  Luhrmann agreed to write a film script but demanded that he be allowed to direct the movie which the producers agreed to but the prospect of a first time director hampered their efforts to raise money for the project. It took three years to raise the money, but eventually they were able to make the movie.  The movie received a fifteen minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festvial and won the Award Of The Youth for Foreign Film.  It also went on to win eight AFI Awards, three BAFTA Film Awards, and a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture in the Comedy/Musical category.


The story focuses on a young man named Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) who has trained to be a ballroom dance since he was six years old in order to win the big Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Dancing Championship.  For some reason, the small town he lives in is really into ballroom dancing so his odds aren’t as good as you’d think. Scott’s other problem is the draconian boss of the championship Mr.Fife (Bill Hunter), who demands that everyone perform their dance routines the traditional way which Scott has a hard time doing.  Scott has happy feet and doesn’t want to conform to the same expectations that everyone else follows.

That attitude doesn’t sit well with his dance partner Liz (Gia Carides) who’s fed up with the unorthodox moves and leaves Scott for another dancer.  With try-outs right around the corner, Scott is forced to team up with a homely beginner named Fran (Tara Marice) who of course gets more attractive as time goes on.  The glasses come off, her hair gets fixed up, her clothes start to emphasize her body, and it’s just a matter of time before Scott falls for her.  To round out the clichés there are the usual obstacles to young love – disapproving parents, success vs. love, and outdated rules that threaten to smother the passion of the two dancers.

For Scott, he not only has to deal with Dancing Federation President trying to force him to abandon his need to improvise but also his parent’s past.  It turns out that long ago his parent were also Pan-Pacific contenders that didn’t make the cut but later opened a dance studio.  Dancing is a way of life for the Hastings family and they’ve devoted waking breath to winning the Championship.  And they are not alone in this obsession because every person in this insular town dreams about the same thing.

When a chance encounter with Fran’s father exposes Scott to a new form of tap-dancing called paso-doble, Scott begins to transform his usual traditionally trained abilities into a more personal style of dancing.  His gift for improvisation combined with this new approach to dancing makes him an even better dancer than he was before.  As Scott and Fran get better and better at dancing, their feelings evolve too.  Everything is put on the line at the final Championship where Scott will of course have to decide what’s more important to him…winning the trophy or Fran’s heart.

I really wanted to like this movie since I love Moulin Rouge but just like Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, this movie is so hyper-stylized and over the top, that I just wanted it to end.  I’m beginning to suspect that Luhrmann passes out triple-shot lattes before each take, because nothing else could explain the over the top performances other than amphetamines.  While Paul Mercurio can definitely dance, I wasn’t as impressed with his acting since in just about every shot he looked like he was about to burst into tears.  Truth be told, I didn’t enjoy most of the performances except for Bill Hunter’s villainous role as the Championship President who’s the big fish in a small pond.  Tara Marice does some convincing emoting as well but overall every in the cast is dialed up to 11, although there is a small part of me that appreciates their “let’s put on a show” zeal.


This anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer looks soft and the detail is poor.  Flesh-tones are inconsistent and usually too warm and the black levels are murky and indistinct.  There’s also a lot of grain present and overall this is not a god quality transfer but it most likely represents the film’s humble independent beginnings and equipment and film.  I’m sure the Blu-ray looks better but I bet not by much.


Although this was originally Dolby Mono, it’s been re-mixed into Dolby Digital 5.1 surround and it fares better than the video quality but never reaches the same heights as Luhrmann’s other movies.   For someone like Luhrmann who loves music and works hard to make his movies sound wonderful, this movie has to be a letdown but there’s not much he can do about it.  Dialogue is clear (although occasionally hard to understand due to thick accents), and it’s a mostly front heavy mix but the satellite speakers are engaged when the music appears.

Special Features  

While the video and sound quality leave something to be desired, the extras fare a little better.  The documentary from the stage to the screen was interesting and it was also enlightening to learn that Luhrmann used to be a ballroom dancer himself and that he was taught by his mother.

  • Audio Commentary by Baz Luhrmann, Catherine Martin, and John “Cha Cha” O”Connell – It’s always interesting to listen to Baz Luhrmann and this track is no exception. There’s some dead air but overall it was an informative listen.
  • Samba to Slow Fox – A 30 minute featurette into the world of ballroom dancing where the viewer discovers the insular world Luhrmann created actually exists.  About 28 minutes too long for me.
  • Strictly Ballroom: From Stage to Screen – The meat and potatoes extra on this disc that covers the journey of the film pretty comprehensively from it’s humble beginning as a play all the way to the Cannes Film Festival.
  • Design Gallery – A collection of pictures from the movie. Only for die-hard fans.}
  • Deleted Scene – A deleted scene of Scott getting lectured about doing the right thing. Skip.

Final Thoughts  

I respect the messages that Luhrmann is trying to impart  such as “a life lived in fear is a life half-lived,” but I think I will stick with Moulin Rouge which has a lot of the same concepts but done with a lot more finesse and confidence.  I think Baz Luhrmann gets better at directing with every movie he makes but this one just didn’t work for me although I know that a lot of people really enjoyed it and it won plenty of awards.  If you liked Moulin Rouge or especially his Romeo and Juliet, you will most likely love this film too.

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2 Responses to “Strictly Ballroom Special Edition (DVD Review)”

  1. Brian White

    What is Baz up to nowadays? Is he working on anything new?

  2. Sean Ferguson

    I haven’t heard anything since his Alexander the Great movie was beaten to the punch by Oliver Stone and his version. I’m sure he will return with something soon though. He’s been away since Australia.