Tango, merengue, salsa, foxtrot, waltz—the very words conjure up alluring images of movement, heat, poetry, style, pride, and romance. Now imagine a fusion between those diverse approaches to ballroom and the kinetic brashness, audacity, and power of hip-hop. The movie writes itself, doesn’t it? Even though it follows every cliché in the book, and then some, Take the Lead delivers on its promise and never feels pandering. The Afterschool Special premise: underdog inner city high school kids find a sense of direction and self-confidence through the mentorship of an inspiring ballroom dance teacher.
Casting is everything here and Antonio Banderas brings his sly charisma to the role of Pierre Dulaine. He’s always been an actor who knows how to carry himself in a scene, doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously, and yet has an inherent sense of dignity that makes him ideally typecast as this kind of guy. He’s the ideal dance instructor: women feel adored around him and men respect him. As for the kids, they take stock characters and breathe fresh life into them—and the actors are a lively blend of skin colors, body types, and attitudes. To the film’s credit, these feel like real people—even though many of them are undoubtedly played by actors in their late 20s and early 30s—and not an MTV advertisement for what kids are supposed to look like. They’re likeable, even when they’re fronting hip-hop bravado, and their interplay with Banderas feels like new school and old school finding the value in one another.
Indeed, the entire movie is a cross-hybrid between respectable middlebrow entertainment for grown-ups, with the mostly static and conventional look of TV-drama and the kinetic flash of pop videos. It runs way too long at 119 minutes and makes one long for the days of 90 minute movies that knew when to get in, get out, and leave the audience wanting more. Still, even as it errs on the side of generic (one of the high school kids has to choose between making his final plunge into a life of crime or the dance competition at the climax—a subplot overwhelmingly tedious because the outcome is never in doubt), there’s something striking about seeing young people discovering themselves through the magic of dance, an art form both intensely personal and richly giving.
You don’t watch a movie like this for the story. Corny, yeah—guilty pleasure, yeah, yeah. But in much the same way the dance follows a familiar pattern, one watches Take the Lead for all the lively moments in between the dim-bulb narrative. It’s all in the way Banderas leads, the way he instills genuine feeling in the kids (you can really see the spark of enthusiasm in their eyes), and the way the kids interact with one another, which is as endearing as it is sassy. As the old saying goes, I want to strut.