“Take the Lead” combines two tired genres: the one where a peculiar teacher comes to an inner-city school and turns all the kids’ lives around with his unorthodox methods and Socratic wisdom; and the one where teenage enemies and rivals come together through the healing power of dance — “Stand and Deliver” meets “Save the Last Dance,” if you will.
Will you? I don’t blame you if you won’t. Neither genre needs much exercise at this point — we’ve all seen “Dangerous Minds,” thank you, or at least “Coach Carter” — and “Take the Lead” doesn’t have anything new to say. It does have some stellar dancing, though, both hip-hop and ballroom, and the considerable affability of Antonio Banderas.
Señor Banderas plays a, how you say, Manhattan ballroom-dance instructor named Pierre Dulaine (the goofy name is justified by the film’s “based on a true story” disclaimer), a suave gentleman who comes from a world of refined elegance, who opens doors for ladies and stands when they enter a room. This makes him ordinary at his academy, where he teaches debutantes-in-training how to waltz for their cotillions, but quite alien at the ghetto high school where, for ill-explained reasons, he volunteers to run the after-school detention program.
The principal, a hard-nosed powerhouse named Augustine James (Alfre Woodard), figures a sambaing sissy named Pierre won’t last one day with the school’s most recalcitrant hoodlums, but Dulaine is determined to soften their hearts through classical ballroom. They’re reluctant at first, of course, until he shows them how sexy the tango can be, and next thing you know they’re dancing against his rich white students in the citywide ballroom competition. And do the inner-city kids bring some of their own flava to the contest? Hells yeah!
The detention class is your usual motley assortment of blinged-out thugs, mostly African-American with some Latinos and one white kid thrown in for diversity. They love to dance, sure, but not to Gershwin standards sung by Ella Fitzgerald. In one scene that defies the principles of both logic and technology, one of the amateur mix-masters blends June Christy’s 1950s recording of “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” with a new rap song called “I Like That (Stop),” right there on the spot, and the two mix perfectly! Who knew? But it gives the kids something suitable to groove on while they dance the foxtrot.
Dulaine becomes life coach to the kids, who come from broken homes (one girl’s mother is literally a whore!) and other wretched situations, but Dianne Houston’s screenplay piles more onto its plate than it can reasonably deal with. In an effort not to let any of the dozen-or-so kids in the class become ciphers, we get subplots for nearly all of them: The white kid has a crush on the fat girl, the kids whose brothers killed each other a year ago have a simmering feud, two guys want the same girl, and on and on, tick, tick, tick, right down the checklist.
That’s not even including the tangent where a humorless teacher (John Ortiz) wants to shut down the dance lessons for the simple reason that someone ALWAYS wants to shut down the dance lessons (or theater productions or music classes or whatever) in these movies. Luckily, Dulaine is able to use the magic powers of dance at a parents’ meeting to demonstrate why the lessons should continue. He gets a few of the moms a little hot and bothered, too, I might add. (Don’t worry, the one who’s a whore isn’t there.)
With music-video director Liz Friedlander at the helm in her first feature, “Take the Lead” moves along at a decent clip. The kids (all played by people in their 20s and 30s, of course) have some personality, and there’s no denying the infectious toe-tapping nature of the material. The movie just doesn’t have a single fresh thought in its head, nor is there any zip in the way it arranges its old materials. Alfre Woodard is always a noble presence, and Banderas is so charming he almost makes the old claptrap work. But even his powers are useless against the, how you say, clichés.
C+ (1 hr., 48 min.; )