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TAKE THE LEAD (article first published : 2006-07-17)

A tenacious, caring individual harnessing teenagers from the wrong side of the tracks, introducing them to something new to encourage teamwork and, in so doing, turning them into better beings … this is a theme common to many films.

Take the Lead, directed by newcomer Liz Friedlander, is yet another and, like the similarly themed dramas Blackboard Jungle, Stand and Deliver and Dangerous Minds, is inspired by a true story - in this instance, that of elegant and good-mannered Pierre Dulaine (Antonio Banderas).

A onetime champion dancer and teacher, he took it on himself to volunteer to teach ballroom dancing to the misfits assigned to the detention class at John Drake High School in New York's rough Bronx neighbourhood. Although he took time to win the approval of the headmistress (Desperate Housewives star Alfre Woodard) who thought he was facing a losing battle, Dulaine's approach seemed logical and a good idea.

By learning to dance and abide by a set of rules, he maintained, the cocky, delusional roughies and toughies would have the chance to learn respect, manners and discipline - and get a vision of a better future for themselves.

The standouts among Dulaine's large group of misfits, all labelled by fellow pupils as "school rejects", include the glum Derek, or Rock (Rob Brown), who has alcoholic parents; and hooker's daughter Lahrette (Yaya DaCosta). Both Rock and Lahrette have something else in common and reason for animosity towards one another - both lost brothers in warfare between their rival gangs.

Also of note among the "rejects" - the usual choice assortment of geeks, chubbies, funny guys and cool dudes - is a sweet, poor rich kid, a nerd desperate to please her elitist and selfish mother but also craving to break free of her rein.

Take the Lead takes the lead of all rags-to-riches stories and follows the usual formulas - the cocky kids' resistance leading to submission, sunny smiles and, sigh, an inevitable finale dance-off against contestants from Manhattan’s snooty mink and manure set.

It also presents some cheesey dialogue, along the line of Banderas's "I don't see rejects. All I see are choices ... choices yet to be made".

But, for all the predictability, there are plusses that make the movie a pleasant entertainment.

The film trickles the sentiment when it could pour it out with gusto, the young cast is full of fun personalities and a deftly understated Banderas exudes his usual charm. Also, the music is great - the Gershwin and ballroom dance classics meshing, often surprisingly well, with the street rap and hip-hop beats that are the passion of the youngsters being encouraged to turn over a new leaf.

Extra marks, too, to director Friedlander, a veteran of music video production, for delivering some exciting, strikingly edited dance sequences. Rating 6/10 – Billy Suter




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