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By Joshua Smith

Luhrmann's Strictly Ballroom
Author: Joshua Smith
Published on: July 14, 1998

Leading Players: Paul Mercurio (Scott Hastings), Tara Morice (Fran), Bill Hunter (Barry Fife), Barry Otto (Doug Hastings), Pat Thompson (Shirley Hastings), Gia Carides (Liz Holt), Peter Whitford (Les Kendall), John Hannan (Ken Railings).

Main Crew: prod, Tristam Miall, Ted Albert; dir, Baz Luhrmann; writ, Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce; dop, Steve Mason; ed, Jill Bilcock; mus, David Hirshfelder; prod d, Catherine Martin; cos, Trathie Angus.

Australian cinema of the 1990s Post New Wave opened with a bang as Baz Luhrmann's flamboyant and intentionally over-the-top Strictly Ballroom hit the cinemas. The film's predictable ugly-duckling/Cinderella/Dirty Dancing storyline took a backseat to the dynamic, in-your-face form that has since become Luhrmann's trademark in the wake of Romeo + Juliet (1996).

Strictly Ballroom features a conscious focus on cinematic form and narrative structure in its pseudo-documentary construction. The curtains that open during the film's opening sequence also draw attention to what follows as merely a performance. This theme runs throughout the piece as people from all walks of life are shown for what they truly are, although their pretentious, self-centred facades may suggest otherwise. The obsessed ballroom dancers portrayed by the film, it could be said, are performers playing the part of performers. It is through this biting satire that the film reaches a plateau that similar films have failed to scale previously.

While the film's bizarre diegesis seems to have sprung entirely from some blindingly bright fantasy dimension, its inspiration came from truth. Apparently Baz Luhrmann has been particularly interested in the insular realm of the ballroom dancer since he was a youth. His inspiration spawned a stage play that Luhrmann and Craig Pearce produced during their days at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts. After a successful season, the pair set themselves the task of converting the stage play to the screen. The result could, in many ways, be said to play much like a staged performance, cramming a number of loud, over-the-top caricatures into each frame along with dramatic set dressing, complemented by traditional theatrical devices such as direct address and narration.

This intoxicating, flamboyant mise-en-scene has since been reflected in a number of works by other Post-New Wave directors, such as Stephen Elliott (Priscilla, 1994) and P.J. Hogan (Muriel's Wedding, 1993). The success of this trio of kitsch comedies inspired a great deal of scholarship into the possibility that a new sub-genre of "quirky" comedy films was arising from Australia's Post-New Wave releases. Since then, though, the prevalence of the trend has declined and the three films are generally regarded as a significant sign of the times.

Luhrmann's success with Strictly Ballroom, despite its cliché-filled screenplay, indicated that Australia was harbouring a significant new talent, a fact that has been proven through Luhrmann's authorship of the amazing 1990s, MTV-inspired, post-modern version of Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet.

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