Music video director Liz Friedlander has built a career on the diversity of her musical tastes, working with everyone from Simple Plan and Babyface to R.E.M. and Avril Lavigne. It only made sense, then, that when it came time to direct her first movie, she would set out to combine two disparate tastes in the hope that they'd taste great together.
"So much of what Usher is doing now is about how inspired he is by Fred Astaire," said Friedlander of the growing trend of combining old dance styles with cutting-edge moves. "I've been to Atlanta and seen a dance called 'ghetto swing' down there, which is kind of partnering swing and hip-hop, and a lot of the Chicago stuff is like stepping, which is a partnering dance. Really old-school dance is coming back in hip-hop — it could be time to blow it wide open."
The bubbly director hopes to do just that with "Take the Lead," a musical drama that brings the unexpected coupling of hip-hop and ballroom dancing to a story that could be described as "You Got Served" meets "Dirty Dancing" with a dash of "Mr. Holland's Opus" thrown in for good measure. "It's not a bad pitch," she laughed. "What I think is cool about this movie is that people can go in saying, 'Oh, I hate hip-hop, but I love ballroom dancing,' and at the end of it hopefully come out with an appreciation for both."
Based on real-life events, "Lead" casts Antonio Banderas as Pierre Dulaine, a former professional dancer who sets out to inspire tough New York public school kids through dance. When they introduce him to their own sounds and styles, however, the result is an energetic, stylistic, sensual art form that bonds them all — and might just start its own craze.
"We wanted to portray the energy of the movie from start to finish," Friedlander said of the film's first trailer. "We wanted to show enough of the dancing to let people know that we were doing something kinda new and cool with the ballroom stuff, [and] we wanted to show Antonio as he's never been seen before."
For the role, Banderas put in long hours of training on the dance floor, and when it came time to shoot, he took on a real-life teaching role as both dancer and actor. "He was the most amazing mentor, because we had a lot of kids in this movie who'd never done anything before," Friedlander recalled. "One of our kids who plays Monster, Brandon Andrews, we found him on a football team at Dominguez High School in [Compton,] California; he had just graduated and never auditioned or done anything before. [Banderas] mentored them in terms of steps, but he also mentored them just in terms of the way that everybody kind of rallied and supported each other."
The "Zorro" star and the young actors also bonded with the real Dulaine, who was all too happy to teach them his moves. "He was one of the ringleaders of the four-week boot camp that the kids went through," Friedlander said. "He was there, he was with us, he participated. And 11,000 kids have gone through his program in New York City schools, which is amazing."
As you watch the trailer, feel free to imagine the music of your favorite hip-hop artists playing over the clips because although Friedlander cannot yet divulge their names, she says that many are interested in recording new songs for the film. "We're potentially out to someone, an amazing hip-hop artist, to actually compose for the film, which would be great," she said. "We have a ton of interest from a bunch of amazing people, and I know it will be chock-full of people who [play on MTV] all the time. We're going for big guns."
A "Take the Lead" gig is appealing to such artists, she reasons, because the soundtrack will be so intertwined with the story. "I want to make a hip-hop 'Saturday Night Fever,' " Friedlander said, citing the classic John Travolta film. "I want to make a record to go along with the movie that you want to listen to again and again, not only because the cut is amazing, but because it reminds you of the experience of watching the film. [I want] to work with artists to create new tracks for us and come up with something really conceptual."
Whoever these artists may be, Friedlander warns that they shouldn't come in thinking that writing for ballroom dancing is easier than straight hip-hop. Some of the professional dancers brought in for "Take the Lead" took that approach, she says, and they quickly learned that this was no slow dance.
"What was really funny was the ones who were really amazing dancers, who came into this thinking, 'No problem, I can do this.' They were all floored by how hard it is to do a simple waltz or a simple fox trot," she said, perhaps summing up the thoughts of those about to watch her film's trailer. "It's just a completely different way of moving."
"Take the Lead" will bump, grind and dip its way into theaters everywhere in early 2006.