Billy Elliot (2000)

Posted by on Jan 2, 2012 in Song & Dance | 0 comments

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Disclaimer: Some young boys swear and drink. And what’s worse (are you ready for this?) is that one of them (are you sure you can take it?) prefers dancing to sports.

Billy Elliot is not for everyone. Only the rare breed of man, woman, or child brave enough to admit a fondness for the occasional feel-good tearjerker or classic musical. Only for the kind of person not afraid to confront gender roles and rethink what it means to be “a man.” Only for the people who think it’s a crime that there’s not a school district in the world that gives children the same exposure to dance as math, science, or even phys ed. It’s sad that Billy Elliot isn’t for everyone, because it damn well should be.

Billy Elliot is billed as a comedy, but the happy-go-lucky tone rarely lasts long, as something sad/morose/disheartening always seems to keep it in check. This is exhibited right from the start, as tween Billy (Jamie Bell) happily jumps up and down on his bed while listening to Brit rockers T. Rex, and we watch the opening credits roll, immediately segueing to the first scene in which Billy frantically searches for his Alzheimer’s-stricken grandmother (Jean Heywood). But the emotional push-and-pull tactic is double-edged. We learn very soon that Billy lives in a working class mining town with his father (Gary Lewis) and brother (Jamie Draven), both miners in the midst of a vicious strike. There’s little money in the household, and even less patience.

Presumably like all the other fathers in town, Billy’s makes him enroll in boxing lessons after school. He’s not good, so his instructor makes Billy stay late and practice. Music playing in a room nearby draws Billy into a ballet class, and before we know it, Billy is joining in. This becomes a habit.

Though Billy’s mother is dead, we billy2can gather that she had influence on Billy’s interest in piano, Fred Astaire, and maybe even T. Rex. And, as it turns out, Billy is quite good at ballet and his predictable taskmaster-with-a-heart-of-gold teacher (Julie Walters) takes him under her wing, encouraging him to try out for the Royal School of Ballet. But, once again, the happiness must make way for sadness. Billy’s father finds out (as if you didn’t guess) and gets right pissed. After all, dancing is for girls and poofters, right?

“Not for lads, Billy. Lads do football, or boxing, or wrestling,” he says (though how wrestling avoided the stigmatic bullet of being stereotypically “gay” is beyond me).

“It’s not just for poofs, dad,” Billy confidently protests. “Some dancers are as fit as athletes.”

Billy is not gay, as evidenced by his interest in fellow dancer Debbie (Nicola Blackwell), though he does have a cross-dressing best mate (Stuart Wells) who is. But Billy’s battle to prove he’s straight isn’t the focus of the film (thankfully). No. He has a much bigger problem. For any of the men in town to accept (or hopefully celebrate) Billy’s love for dance would require a shift in societal thinking. That means change, and change ain’t easy. Thus the film gets increasingly emotional and complicated. But don’t you worry. This is a feel-good comedy, after all. So it’ll all work out in the end, no matter how ridiculous. (And his father’s decision to become a scab during the union strike is ridiculous.) But if it does work out, expect yet another bit of sad news to accompany it.

Directed by Stephen Daldry (The Hours and The Reader) and written by Lee Hall (allegedly inspired by Royal Ballet dancer Phillip Marsden), Billy Elliot is an inspiring toe-tapper with every bit of the exuberance of a good musical (though it could do without the sequences with Billy dancing on the way home from school). Regarding the best single shot in the film, Roger Ebert dutifully noted that “it was photographed by Brian Tufano, who has one shot that perfectly illustrates the difference between how children and adults see the world. Billy’s friend Debbie is walking along a fence, clicking a stick against the boards. She doesn’t notice that she is suddenly walking in front of a line of cops, called up against the striking miners and carrying plastic shields; she clicks on those, too.”

When it came time for the Oscars, Billy pranced its way to three nominations (supporting actress for Walters, director, and screenplay), but won none. Its true test of cinematic endurance and lasting power came three years after the film opened, as Billy Elliot played on a different kind of stage. The musical has since made it to Broadway and picked up its own share of acclaim.

But, as we well know after watching Billy Elliot, with the good always comes the bad. If we’re lucky we’ll take a lesson from the title character, because no matter what gets thrown at him, he can always just turn up the music and turn down … well … everything else.

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