Thursday, August 25, 2005

Mad Hot Ballroom

Way off at the other end of the documentary spectrum is Mad Hot Ballroom, which Paramount are trying to promote as this year's feelgood, child-based, competitive-hobby-oriented documentary. Yes, that's right, it's Spellbound with dancing.

In fact, it says so right on the poster. "Irresistible! A kind of Spellbound crossed with Strictly Ballroom!" -- Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times. Right in the middle of the page. So they're kind of inviting the comparison.

And is it as good as Spellbound? No. It's not as good as Spellbound. Now, of course, there's no shame in that. Spellbound was a five star classic (and available on an excellent DVD, by the way). But, y'know, when you remind me about Spellbound with a big poster right before I go into the film, it makes think of Spellbound. And I sit there thinking, This isn't as good as Spellbound.

Ballroom dancing is, apparently, a required subject in some New York schools. They get the kids when they're 11 and teach them to dance. To be honest, this is probably the best time to do it. Our school didn't attempt dance classes until we were in our mid-teens, in the run-up to the school dance, by which point I was thoroughly disinclined to have anything to do with it. I still subconsciously file Scottish country dancing under "forced jollity." Get them when they're 11 and you've got a chance.

So the idea is to follow three classes of 11-year-olds as they learn to dance, and go forward into the inter-school competition. This being Manhattan, the schools have such catchy names as PS 112, PS 115 and PS 150. And yes, the kids are very sweet, you root for them to win (at least once two of the schools have been knocked out and we know who we're meant to be rooting for), and there's something fundamentally engaging about the whole idea of inner city ballroom dancing classes. There are great moments in the film, particularly the overly emotional teacher who's so painfully devoted to her class that she breaks down in tears while merely being interviewed about them.

But... it's not as good as Spellbound.

Why not? Because Spellbound picked a small number of the kids and really got into their heads. Mad Hot Ballroom doesn't, and leaves you feeling like you ought to be taking notes. Even the film's website lists a total of nineteen teachers and pupils in its "cast" section, which is just too damn many to get invested in. We're told how dancing has apparently changed some of these kids, but we don't get to see it.

Don't get me wrong, it's an okay film. It's sweet. But it's no Spellbound.