Billy Elliots Got Boogie Ballet Fever: Dance, Billy, Dance!
Feb 20, 2001
Review by David Abrams
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:This is a tap-happy film about self-discovery, fatherhood and Rising Above It All.
Cons:The thick accents make it fookin' hard to understand some dialogue.
The Bottom Line: Fueled by outstanding performances, direction and writing, Billy Elliot resurrects the Gene Kelly in all of us.
Recommend this product?
There’s a classic moment in Singin’ in the Rain when Gene Kelly comes to a standstill, spreads his arms, gets an orgasmic grin on his face and sings, “Gotta dance! Got-ta dance!”
Eleven-year-old Billy Elliot has that same kind of energetic joy on his face in the opening moments of this British Flashdancey feel-gooder. The first time we see Billy (played by the energetic and joyful newcomer Jamie Bell), he’s bouncing up and down on his bed while T-Rex’s “Cosmic Dancer” blares on the soundtrack. Up, down, up, down…Billy pirouettes and churns his legs in slow-motion. Take a look at his eyes, at the tongue wagging from his mouth, and you’ll know this is a boy born to dance. Billy is compelled to dance in the same way Scorsese characters are compelled to fire bullets. It’s in him and it’s gotta come out.
Trouble is, his father and older brother think he’ll turn out to be a homosexual “poof” if he dons tights and slippers. That’s why they’ve got him signed for boxing lessons down at the local boys club in their northeastern England town. Billy’s no good in the boxing ring—he’s got a comic, gawky-limbed way of dancing away from punches and then, at the slightest distraction, he takes a hard blow to the jaw.
As luck would have it, sharing building space with the boys club is a dance school run by the chain-smoking, grim-demeanored Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters). One night, Billy wanders over to the tutu-ed side of the house and finds himself in the midst of giggling girls, a forest of Swan Lake limbs and Mrs. Wilkinson growling, “Focus! Focus, girls!” In less time than it takes to say “Nureyev,” Billy is swapping his gloves for a pair of slippers. Even though Billy has all the grace of a moose on ice, Mrs. Wilkinson is duly impressed. Billy may not be focused, but he’s filled with plenty of “gotta dance” energy.
Billy Elliot, the film, is full of focus, however. It hones in on its story with precision direction from Oscar-nominated Stephen Daldry and writing from Oscar-nominated Lee Hall (the wonderful Walters rounds out the trio of Oscar noms the scrappy film earned this year). Have we seen this kind of plot before? Certainly. A quick skim of underdog films like Rocky, Flashdance, Saturday Night Fever and Breaking Away reveals much of Billy Elliot’s cinematic influences. And let’s not forget this movie’s mirror-opposite, Girlfight, in which the teenage Diana longs to get in the boxing ring with the boys. Billy Elliot also has echoes of other recent British imports like The Full Monty and Brassed Off.
Like those British imports, the working-class accents sometimes get the best of our Yank ears, muddling into thick mumbles. Only the occasional “fookin’ this” or “fookin’ that” are recognizable. It’s certainly not as indecipherable as The Butcher Boy, but there will be times when you’ll lean closer to the screen and cock an ear in order to catch all the dialogue.
However, that’s the only fookin’ thing I could find wrong with Billy Elliot. Like its determined young hero, the film succeeded in winning my heart and admiration in its own quirky manner. For one thing, Daldry and Hall deftly balance Billy’s struggle for acceptance as a dancer with the ongoing coal mine strike dividing the town (and his father and brother). In one scene, shots of plies and twirls at ballet practice are intercut with the hordes of strikers struggling against the line of police holding them back from the strike-breaking scabs. In both worlds, the filmmakers show us, there are equal parts litheness and athletic brawn.
Billy Elliot also explores the pain and joy of fatherhood. At first, Billy’s father (Gary Lewis) erupts in rage and shame at the thought of his son giving up boxing for ballet. Sitting at the breakfast table, he’s barely able to strangle out his bafflement: “Lads do football, boxing, or wrestling—not friggin’ ballet!” Eventually, Mr. Elliot realizes he can’t control his son’s dance fever any more than he can the economic circumstances of Margaret Thatcher’s England. There are several moments when we see the losing struggle in the father’s eyes and, by the teary-eyed end of the movie, he’s come full circle. The shift in paternal emotions is gradual and realistic, thanks especially to Lewis’ performance. In fact, it’s probably the best father-son relationship I’ve seen in the movies since Chris Cooper warmed up to his rocket-loving son in October Sky.
Walters is also very good in a role which, inexplicably disappears in the second half (this is sort of akin to the actress’ career—even though she’s never stopped working, I’d almost completely lost track of her after 1983’s Educating Rita; it’s good to have her back center stage). While she’s on screen, Walters lights up the movie (in more ways than one) and serves as a tough-but-tender mother figure to young Billy, whose mother died a year before the story starts. Think of Rocky’s Burgess Meredith standing backstage at The Nutcracker and you’ll have some idea of Walters’ performance.
Without a doubt, however, the movie belongs to Jamie Bell. The movie’s official site says Bell has been dancing since he was six years old and was discovered after 2,000 other young hopefuls were auditioned for the part. I cannot imagine that any of those other 1,999 kids could have been more perfect for this role: Jamie is Billy (and why he wasn’t even nominated for an Academy Award is another profound Oscar mystery in a year already full of head-scratchers). With his jug ears, pinched-squint features and limbs akimbo dancing, Bell perfectly bottles all the rage, frustration, hope and joy of adolescence, especially in a kid who’s a Gene Kelly trapped in coal-miner circumstances. There’s a particularly moving scene of Billy tap-dancing out all his emotions in a back alley after a fight with his father—if that doesn’t get you bouncing in your seat, then, my friend, there’s a lump of coal in your chest.
I’ll leave it to Billy himself, describing his urge to dance, to best sum up how I feel about this movie: “Once I get going, I sorta disappear. I feel a change in my body—like fire, like a bird flying, like electricity.”
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