Sunday, March 16, 2014

Billy Elliot


Norman’s untimely injury has unfortunately led to my having to postpone the opening of my exciting new one-woman show, Vicki on Ricki. Joseph, my manager, was unable to resecure the Coconut Grove in Miami but did manage to sneak it into the Oddfellows Hall in Welch, West Virginia. I had a little bit of trepidation at having the world premiere in such a déclassé venue but Joseph assured me that Americana is now all the rage and I would be sure to have a wonderful reception. He was right; my tribute to that great modern star, Ricki Lake, wowed the good citizens of McDowell county and was undoubtedly the biggest thing to hit that part of the world since Homer Hickam and the rocket boys fired off their squibs back in '58. We also got some useful input on how the show played for a paying audience before having to face those heartless urban critics. I now know that some of the second act needs to be reworked as the Mrs. Winterbourne number just isn't gelling. I think it's because the audience can't buy my back-up singer as Shirley Maclaine, even when he wears that frizzy red fright wig.

On returning home to Chateau Maine, I found that Norman was still feeling somewhat under the weather. It didn’t take me long to notice that he had been making his hourly Tom Collins with a bottle of Beulah's fine jewelry cleaner and delouser rather than with Tanqueray; he had to spend several days in bed recovering. After tucking him in and leaving him to Nurse Tameka’s loving ministrations, I took the opportunity to slip out for a matinee of that adorable British movie about dancing coal miners, Billy Elliot.

Billy (Jamie Bell), a coal miner’s son in a bleak northern town, decides to investigate the world of the dance when he recognizes that it frees him emotionally and spiritually from the drab and depressing existence he must face during the '84 British coal strike. The 14 year old actor plays 11 year old Billy with complete wide eyed assurance and lets us see the liberation dance gives him from his grim realities. Julie Walters is his gruff ballet teacher on the skids who recognizes his talent and makes him live up to his potential. Much of the film concerns their odd relationship and how Billy gets parenting and guidance from it that he cannot receive from his emotionally frozen family.

The movie has echoes of FlashdanceFootloose and that whole spate of modern movies in which dance is used as a metaphor of masculine coming to terms with self and breaking free of confining roles (Strictly BallroomShall We Dance, and In and Out come to mind as examples of this somewhat peculiar subgenre). The film is sold as a feel good comedy, but it's much grimmer and more profound than that with the background of the miner's struggle. The difficulties between the coal mining industry and the Thatcherite government of the mid 80s are not well known in the U.S. but it was a time of great social upheaval in which whole towns and a way of life that had existed for generations were brutally destroyed for the greater good of modern capitalism. Both Bell and Walters give fantastic performances as Billy and his teacher, making the central relationship work and giving an intimate sense of true mentor/pupil dynamics not often seen in film. The other key relationships such as Billy's feelings for his father, brother, a budding transsexual neighbor, and a possible girlfriend, don't work quite as well. For unknown reasons, the director (Stephen Daldry) has chosen to have many of the key moments with these characters either downplayed or happening off-screen. This is especially true of Billy’s father (Gary Lewis), who seems to make most of his decisions regarding his life and his sons’ between scenes. All comes right with a happy ending which will be gratifying to anyone who knows anything about current British ballet. It’s marred slightly, however, by the obvious absence of the Julie Walters character.

Another major quibble is that some of the shots of young Mr. Bell are, to my mind, blatantly homo-erotic in a way that makes at least the viewer somewhat uncomfortable and a co-conspirator in a subtle brand of voyeurism. I have no objection to sex or eroticisim in cinema but when I leave a film feeling like a guilty co-conspirator, something is definitely wrong.
The film might make a good musical (and I can see myself in the Julie Walters role).  Rodgers and Hammerstein would have made a decent go of it but they are, unfortunately, both dead.  I might mention it to my darling friend Elton John next time I see him.  He has been looking for a new project.

Swan lake listening. Tutu wearing. Riverdance choreography. Subtle transvestism. Rotten vegetable throwing. Gratuitous demented granny. Symbolic piano burning. Rioting strikers.

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