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Dandy Dance Film

Energy triumphs in `Strictly Ballroom' from Australia

WHEN the new Australian movie called "Strictly Ballroom" played the New York Film Festival a few months ago, I described it in rip-roaring terms: a triumph of art over glitz, of glitz over art, and of energy over everything!

Now that the picture is opening in American theaters, I can't think of any reason to change that assessment.

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"Strictly Ballroom" is silly fun and sometimes crazy fun. But it's jam-packed with imagination and has more upbeat emotions per minute than a dozen of the "feel-good" films that many critics are quick to praise nowadays.

I suppose "Strictly Ballroom" could be called a feel-good movie by people who like that label, since it certainly makes you feel dandy. I find myself rather ambivalent about most of the feel-good fare that's arrived in theaters lately, however, and I'd prefer to put this highly original opus in a different category.

The trouble with feel-good pictures like "A River Runs Through It," "Scent of a Woman," and "Tous les matins du monde" is that they all have pretensions to seriousness of thought and loftiness of insight; yet they're perfectly willing to cut intellectual corners and invoke emotional cliches to give moviegoers the illusory sense that they're somehow being improved by the sentiments they're witnessing for the zillionth time.

While these sentiments may be valuable in themselves, they'd be far more helpful if they were thought about, explored, and investigated in their respective films - not just superficially made over with striking images, pretty music, and star performances.

"Strictly Ballroom" has more than its share of striking images, and its music and performances are equally impressive in their own manic way. One of the refreshing things about the picture, however, is that it claims no purpose beyond giving us a walloping good time.

This makes it more intelligent than most of today's feel-good movies, since unlike them it knows its limitations and has the savvy to work brilliantly within those boundaries.

In fact, I think "Strictly Ballroom" is actually a more "improving" film than its current competitors, since it reminds us that fun, exuberance, and laughter are profoundly important in their own right and need no excuses to be respected and cherished.

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Since the story of "Strictly Ballroom" is very slight, it doesn't require much of a synopsis. All the main characters are ballroom dancers, and the hero is a young rebel whose insistence on dreaming up new steps is downright blasphemous to the fusty Ballroom Dancing Federation, which bars him from vying for the championship he's always hoped to win. He finds a new partner, who's an ugly duckling in the most blatant fairy-tale tradition, and together they sweep every one of their friends, foes, and compet itors clear off their ever-twirling feet.

The movie's own history has a fairy-tale ring. A young Australian stage director named Baz Luhrmann inaugurated it as a 30-minute student production with a budget of less than $50, then developed it into a professional show at a Sydney theater - where it caught the eye of producer Ted Albert, who promptly arranged for Mr. Luhrmann to direct it on film.

Speaking with Luhrmann during his visit to the New York filmfest, I found him quite steadfast in refusing to give the picture any deep meanings beyond its obvious love for larger-than-life behaviors and wild plot twists that straddle the line between mythical archetypes and sheer corniness.

Yet there's nothing breezy or haphazard about his approach to filmmaking; he and his chief collaborators, designers Catherine Martin and Bill Marron, steeped themselves in ballroom lore and worked many hours on the settings, costumes, and ambience of their story.

The result of their labor is an extravanganza in every sense, not to be missed by anyone who appreciates the joy of color, motion, and melody for their own sweet sakes. Ballroom dancing isn't exactly a hot commodity in the age of rap, hip-hop, and heavy metal; but Luhrmann and company treat it with exactly the right blend of enthusiasm, respect, and spoofery. Their production deserves to be a big, shimmering hit.

* `Strictly Ballroom' has a PG rating. It contains some vulgar language and behavior.

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