Razzle Dazzle: A Journey Into Dance

dir: Darren Ashton
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You could argue that making a mockumentary about stage mothers and their poor, put-upon children is a bit redundant, since you can’t satirise something that is already such a horrible reflection on humanity from the start. You can’t satirise a satire: it’d be like satirising Yes, Minister or parodying The Simpsons.

Or maybe you can, I’m not sure. Maybe anything is fair game.

Though I have no proof for this bollocksy assertion, I like to think that this flick’s origins were initiated by the last part of Little Miss Sunshine, which focused on a beauty pageant for 8-year-old girls. That was a hideous and insightful peak into the mentality of parents who make their children look like Las Vegas showgirls in order to live through and profit by them.

Razzle Dazzle makes the whole film about the sheer horribleness of these stage mothers, and the delusional maniacs who coach them. The difference is that the setting isn’t the exciting world of pre-teen beauty pageants, but instead resides in the magical land of dance.

The only characters who come through okay in this are the girls, who have their ups and downs, but at least they’re still recognisably human. For now.

All of the rest of the adults are depicted as malignant monsters, who use the children like pawns on the chessboard of bolstering their own demonic egos.

Mister Jonathon (Ben Miller) is a deeply pathetic individual who looks so creepy that Michael Jackson himself wouldn’t let the guy near his own kids. All the same, Mr Jonathon is quite harmless. He is a perpetual also-ran in life’s marathon, having racked up more ‘Honourable Mention’ and ‘Participant’ pseudo-awards as a dance instructor than is healthy. He is a delusional idiot, clearly inspired at least in part by Ricky Gervais’s David Brent character in The Office, who thinks his deeply stupid dance routines, which try to encompass ‘worthy’ issues like global warming, sweat shops and the oppression of women in Afghanistan, have a world-changing impact.

His main rival in the upcoming SanoSafe contest is Miss Elizabeth (Jane Hall), who drills her young charges like they’re recruits in a Marine boot camp, and urges them to starve in order to maintain their dancing purity. Where Mr Jonathon is incompetent and chaotic, Miss Elizabeth is viciously strict.

They are the least nasty of the adults in the story. The mother of one of Mister Jonathon’s dancers, Justine (Kerry Armstrong), is an absolute horror. The things she does to her poor daughter Tenille (Shani Noletovitz) would be considered child abuse in any other context. The stuff this woman says… Justine most directly of all the parents seems to be trying to live through her child, made most explicit in a hideous scene where she directly manipulates Tenille’s limbs as if she's a puppet. Her failed ambitions will not be thwarted, and she undertakes progressively more idiotic methods to try to ensure Tenille’s success.

At one stage she speaks to camera, mapping out Tenille’s likely career path, and manages to encompass the path of most contemporary child nobodies whose parents are foisting unwanted limelight upon them: the local end point being Australian Idol, then followed by American Idol, bizarrely enough. And then, with a straight face Justine says passionately, “If she needs to “black” up to win American Idol, then she’ll “black” up.” It’s a jaw-dropping scene played absolutely dead pan by Armstrong, who is a lovely actress in most everything she does, but is terribly discomforting here.

A preliminary competition sees Miss Elizabeth’s North Korean Robot Army style squad heading to the finals, and Mister Jonathon’s Jazzketeers squeezing in by default. The preparation for the final takes up most of the flick, especially as we need to see how much uglier the human condition can be in the hands of these monstrous adults and these keen but defenceless kids.

Just to up the ante, there’s at least one person even more hideous than Justine in the film. Mister Jonathon’s assistant Barbara (Denise Roberts) is by far the nastiest piece of work in the flick. She is represented as a borderline paedo who also ‘borrows’ kids in the foster care system based on dancing ability, and discards them when they disappoint her. There were times watching this flick that I forgot it was a comedy.

As something of a side story, or an antidote to the poison on display, a relatively normal mum is part of the action, Paulette (Nadine Gardner), who doesn’t really get what all the fuss is about. She’s pregnant and has problems of her own, but her daughter Grace (Clancy Ryan), who takes her dancing very seriously, is incensed when her mother downplays its importance. Paulette also has chronic lateness syndrome, and, even worse, seems to be romantically inclined towards the clearly gay Mister Jonathon.

I mean, he’s a choreographer for crying out loud. And a bad one at that.

Razzle Dazzle is mildly amusing, and no Donnie Darko (with the Sparkle Motion sequence), Welcome to the Doll House or even Drop Dead Gorgeous, the murderous American satire of teen pageants. But it succeeds on the modest levels that it tries to achieve. The girls look like they’re having fun, even and especially because the adults are completely nuts. And, as nasty as it gets, the flick doesn’t veer so far into black comedy that it can’t be pulled back by the treacle. Even Tenille, who seems the most at risk of permanent physical or emotional damage, has a dad who slyly protects her from her mother’s Mommie Dearest style machinations, and clearly loves her for who she is. As do most of the parents. Just the few, the bloody few whose selfishness knows no bounds...

In a nice bit of stunt casting, Tara Morice and Paul Mercurio have small roles in the flick, bringing to mind that other triumph of Australian cinema devoted to dancing: Strictly Ballroom. In a completely out-there bit, the costumer played by Tara starts singing Gold by Spandau Ballet for no discernible reason, but it doesn’t hurt the flick.

I enjoyed it, and I am what I would call genetically predisposed towards loathing flicks about this kind of subject matter. And especially this ilk of human. But enjoy it I did, just to paraphrase Yoda. It is well directed, doesn’t hang around for too long and manages to maintain the right tone. Most of the time, at least, but even through the dull bits, the excruciating bits, the tiresome bits, the love some of the parents have for their kids, and the love the kids have for dancing makes an otherwise bitter pill easier to swallow.

7 times no, Mrs Worthington, you shouldn’t put your daughter on the stage out of 10

“Let us pray to the Lord of the Dance, no, not that one,” – Razzle Dazzle: A Journey Into Dance.