Take the Lead


Antonio Banderas as Pierre Dulaine
Rob Brown as Rock
Yaya DaCosta as Larhette
Alfre Woodard as Augustine James
John Ortiz as Mr. Temple
Laura Benanti as Tina
Dante Basco as Ramos
Jenna Dewan as Sasha
Marcus T. Paulk as Eddie

Pierre Dulaine (Antonio Banderas) brings mad hot ballroom dancing to the South Bronx.

Part “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” part “Breakfast Club,” and part “Mambo Kings,” this engaging mentorship movie is saved from excessive sap because of Banderas’ good humor, the expressive and three-dimensional young actors, and the genuine joy and energy of dance that explodes in every scene.

One day Pierre Dulaine (Antonio Banderas) decided to bring the “romance, grace, and confidence” of ballroom dancing to inner city kids in the South Bronx. Principal Augustine James (Alfre Woodard) thinks the idea is absurd, but needs someone to supervise the kids in detention, and Dulaine is the only volunteer. “Take the Lead” is the story of Pierre Dulaine and his real-life “Mad Hot After-School Program.”

Director Liz Friedlander, a music video veteran, combines dazzling dance and music with an ensemble of engaging characters. The brilliant dance scenes range from classic ballroom at an elegant cotillion to grinding hip hop at a nightclub, culminating in a stunning dance contest. Acclaimed movie choreographer JoAnn Jansen shares duties with Rich and Tone Talauega, brothers noted for their trendsetting hip-hop choreography. The producers also recruited collaborators from around the world to create the movie’s soundtrack, including classic Gershwin, modern tango, reggaetone, and hip hop, forging innovative pairings, such as Q-Tip (from A Tribe Called Quest) rapping on both a Lena Horne recording of Gershwin and a traditional tango.

The core of the movie is Dulaine, played by Antonio Banderas with humor, grace, and self-deprecation. Waiting outside the principal’s office, he stands to open the door for every woman walking by, a habit noticed by both the instantly-smitten school secretary and the incredulous young man also waiting for the principal. He exudes classic old world charm and a deep passion for dance, proving its worth to his detention students in a dazzling tango with a star pupil, the uptown Morgan (Katya Virshilas), a scene that leaves the students and the audience breathless.

Mostly, however, Banderas is confident enough to step aside and let his young ensemble shine. At once awkward, elegant, brash, shy, crude, and charming, often all in the same breath, these beautifully expressive young actors reflect all the agony and ecstasy of adolescence. Dulaine’s students are complex and engaging characters, filled with an almost limitless energy, and the actors invest each character with unique and compelling personalities.

In the movie’s main subplot, both Rock (Rob Brown) and Larhette (Yaya Dacosta) struggle to escape the cycle of drugs and crime while working out their animosity to each other over the deaths of their brothers. Crime and prostitution do not triumph: if you were hoping they would, you were probably already planning to avoid this movie. What is surprising is the intensity of the struggle both characters face. Outside of dance class, Larhette is almost never seen without a spiral bound notebook, doing homework on the subway and at home while nursing her baby brother. Likewise, Brown’s mobile face charts Rock’s complicated emotions as he is driven into crime through bad luck (his father vomits on his prom ticket) and desperation.

The other students are equally well-drawn. Caitin (Lauren Collins) is one of Dulaine’s regular students, an awkward Catholic schoolgirl who asks to join his detention group because Morgan says they are all hopeless. Her storyline begins awkwardly, but gains momentum until her stubborn courage creates some of the movie’s most endearing scenes. Another boy (Kurd, played by Jonathan Malen) boldly comes to Dulaine’s apartment, eats the breadsticks off Dulaine’s dinner plate, and then shyly confesses his attraction to his dance partner.

Near the end of the movie, Dulaine is forced to defend his program. He says ballroom dancing teaches a boy to respect his partner, and teaches a girl that she is worth respect. Banderas delivers this speech earnestly, and it works, not because the speech is eloquent and inspirational, but because it is not. He is a dancer, not a man of words, who needs to explain what dance means. Banderas beautifully conveys both the awkwardness of his words, and the genuine passion behind them.

Dulaine’s appeal is, of course, successful. We do not watch movies like this to see what life is usually like, but to see what it can be; not to be reminded that we are powerless, but to be reassured that one person can make a difference. It is much like other real-life inner-city mentoring movies, except that, honestly, watching kids solve calculus problems or play the violin is not nearly as exciting as watching young dancers perform a hot tango.

The Bottom Line:
Banderas is charming, the young actors are compelling, and the dancing is stunning. “Take the Lead” is an engaging mentorship movie that rarely veers into sappiness, and is enlivened by dazzling dancing throughout.

Visit Pierre Dulaine’s official website!

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Weekend: Nov. 15, 2018, Nov. 18, 2018

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