Like a well-trained dancer with a vitamin deficiency, “Take the Lead” — based on the true story of “Mad Hot Ballroom” inspiration Pierre Dulaine — hits all its marks, but never dazzles anyone with its footwork. Nevertheless, this well-intentioned, feel-good urban tale of adversities overcome should waltz to a healthy B.O., thanks to its diverse mix of music, people, inspiring messages and the gentility imparted by star Antonio Banderas.
As Dulaine, Banderas assumes the “To Sir With Love” chair of advanced life lessons and ballroom dancing. He is magnetic, charismatic, and everything else a movie star should be. It helps that his adversaries — who will, of course, become his allies — are a rough-hewn crowd of after-school detainees who wouldn’t know a fox trot from a ’47 Buick.
Dulaine stumbles on high school hard case Rock (played with considerable sensitivity by Rob Brown) taking a five-iron to the car belonging to short-fused principal Augustine James (Alfre Woodard). Dulaine, who is a dance instructor, decides Rock and the school’s other unrefined delinquents could use a healthy dose of dance. Of course, he has a hard time selling his idea to anyone else.
“Take the Lead” looks terrific and makes New York look good, too. However, the plotline proceeds like a cake recipe. Rock and LaRhette (Yaya DaCosta), whose brothers were on opposite sides of a gang war, are made dance partners despite their mutual hostility in Dulaine’s after-school dance class, but their resistance to each other soon melts away. Meanwhile, the educational bureaucracy mounts its own resistance to Dulaine’s techniques, despite all he does for the kids.
Additionally, family tragedies impose themselves on the narrative, and the poor kids are dissed by Dulaine’s regular students, all children of obscene privilege.
And, the movie culminates in a big citywide dance competition.
There seems to be no sports-movie cliche, or a teen-drama conceit, or ugly-duckling moral that scenarist Dianne Houston and director Liz Friedlander have failed to resurrect for “Take the Lead”; audiences could quite easily narrate the story themselves as it unfolds.
But for all the cliches, the young performers in the film come across as quite genuine and even charming, once their obnoxious, hardshell finish is penetrated by Dulaine and his European savoir-faire. Even in as banal a movie as “Take the Lead,” Banderas seems fresh — perhaps partially because of the fact he looks so good in a suit.