In 2001, I went to the cinema one day to see a movie hailed as the ‘feel-good’ movie of the year. Heart-warming, inspiring, sweet and funny, Billy Elliot, directed by Stephen Daldry, was the thing at that time. I remember waiting in line to get my ticket and glancing over at the poster. A young boy, in his trunks, standing in line between young girls in tutus, apparently going to a dance class. I was thinking that it would probably be a movie which poked fun at the fact that a boy wanted to do ballet, much ala The Full Monty. And even though Billy Elliot has glimpses of that angle on the issue, I was grateful it was so much more than just that.
Billy Elliot is a young boy living near Newcastle in 1980s miner-strike England. Coming from a family of miners who strive to get by, he discovers he likes to dance more than he wants to box and be like his dad and older brother. Billy is sweet, caring and trapped in a life that seems to be predetermined. Essentially, the film is a coming of age story, a story of being brave enough to be yourself and how fun and difficult the road to discovery is. All that’s good and nice. The best thing about Billy Elliot, though, is how easily, passionately and truthfully it manages to convey the liberating feeling of dance.
There are a lot of Hollywood films that try to show how glamorous but hard, exhilarating but spirit-breaking dancing can be but most of them cling to such stereotypical representations of dance and dancers that it’s better to just fast forward to the dance scenes. And, sometimes, those aren’t that good either. Billy Elliot is such a special dance film because it doesn’t reproduce stereotypes or, at least, tries to address them. Billy’s sexuality as a dancer is, in some ways, a big part of the film as he’s too young to really know yet. And when one would think that ballet would help him realise that he’s gay, or reaffirm his masculinity, as in many films that concern men dancing, the film allows for neither to happen. Billy, portrayed by Jamie Bell in a once-in-a-lifetime performance, has no such revelations, stays somewhere in between the two choices the entire time in order to make the point that dance has nothing to do with sexual orientation. Billy is a dancer. And it’s the story of a dancer we’re watching, above everything else.
Billy Elliot succeeds so well in showcasing how much Billy overcomes in his effort to become a dancer because the film is set, very strategically, during the miners’ strike of the 1980s. Billy‘s too young to be concerned with such issues but his whole family is very much affected by it and, as a result, so is he. His mother has passed away a long time and he has been raised by his dad, older brother — two very ‘macho’ type men — and his grandma, who suffers from dementia. In this way, taking ballet lessons is not only controversial in terms of sex but also in terms of class as well. Again, many films deal with how ballet is considered a ‘high art’ and the struggles to blend it with today’s pop culture — since the films are a product of that culture as well (see Save The Last Dance or Flashdance)- but they, again, merely touch upon that tension, turn it into another plot point and then find a neat resolution which suits the rule of the ‘mandatory’ happy ending. At the opposite end, Billy Elliot places that tension in the centre of the film, definitely uses it to create some sense of suspense and agony but also goes deeper into the subject as it explores the restrictions the class system places on people which are not easy to surpass. By the end of the film, Billy’s family is still, pretty much, the same in terms of class and even Billy keeps his northern accent. And even though Billy immerses himself in such a ‘high brow’ world, through ballet, there’s no clear severance of ties or the insinuation that his whole family is, by the end, taken care of because of it. It’s still a struggle, as class barriers are hard to overcome.
More than anything else, Billy Elliot is about dancing and not what it takes to succeed but what it takes to really be a dancer. Dance scenes blend ballet with jazz, boogie and tap and almost appear as a somatic reaction to everything that‘s happening around Billy rather than being parts of a specific choreography. Again, there are many dance films that have their protagonists spontaneously break out in dance (like in Footloose). What’s so special about Billy Elliot is that this is consistently done throughout the film. It’s not just in one scene which would serve to showcase how the character is a natural dancer. Billy oozes dance in almost every scene, skipping on the street, running around the house or angrily tap dancing as a reaction to his father and dance teacher fighting over him. Billy dances when he’s angry, sad or emotional, happy or, even, bored. And it never gets boring, exactly because all these reactions and feelings come as a natural result of the tension between his life and background and his passion for ballet. And the film cleverly uses not only the politics of the era but, also, the soundtrack in order to connect Billy’s rawness when dancing with the hard times his family is going through. From T. Rex’s Children of the Revolution to probably one of the most gripping and creative tap dance scenes ever to grace a film, choreographed to The Jam’s A Town Called Malice, Billy Elliot is all about how dancing can be a creative outburst in times of turmoil and trouble. Billy is going through personal turmoil, letting it all out, dancing as England crumbles under pressure at the same time. Dancing becomes a reflex, a defense mechanism, a therapeutic process, an act of resistance and the only thing of beauty in an, otherwise, grey and miserable environment all at once.
Billy Elliot is an exciting film to watch, as unique as its protagonist. It’s an unusual coming of age story, as Billy‘s love of dance is what makes him grow and not his first love, as it usually happens in such films. The film’s cinematography is gritty and fresh, though nostalgic, its script humorous and thoughtfully emotional, its characters interesting and real, even though imagined. Above all, Billy Elliot is an extraordinary dance film as it doesn’t use dance just as another metaphor for the American dream. Billy Elliot knows exactly what it feels to only be able to express yourself through dance and the freedoms that dance allows you, at that moment. It’s a film that lets everyone know the truth about dance. When you dance you ‘forget everything. You’re there, flying, like a bird. Like electricity’. And that’s what watching Billy Elliot can feel like as well. Yeah, electricity.
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