Having praised stage over screen in the case of ‘M Butterfly’, it made me think of a transfer in the other direction. Step forward, ‘Billy Elliot’. This amazing film, written by Lee Hall and directed by Stephen Daldry, was released in 2000 and became a stage show in 2005. It tells the story of an 11-year-old boy whose dad sends him to boxing lessons. Boxing isn’t his thing. One day, the end of his lesson coincides with the start of the ballet class that follows and, as he has to pass on the keys, he has to wait around.
Jamie Bell is excellent as the young boy who finds himself drawn to dance and then discovers that he has real talent. Julie Walters is the inspiring dance teacher who encourages him. Billy continues to dance even when his coal miner father forbids it. How he deals with the negative stereo- types about boys dancing is a large part of the film. All this is played out against a back drop of the 1984- 85 miners strike with Billy, his dad, brother and ill grandmother all trying to cope following the death of his mother. Struggle against the odds is a big theme.
I loved the film when I saw it and love it still. The stage musical opened in 2005. I saw it during its opening season. I actually liked most of the songs but the story of struggle, acceptance, and finding your own way was submerged under a feel- good, musical- theatre gravy. I know that both Lee Hall and Stephen Daldry were also creators of the stage version but the imperative to entertain (to laugh?) meant that some aspects of the story were ruined for me.
Here was a boy whose determination to dance, despite what others thought, provided the power of the story. The ‘feel- good’ aspect came because he triumphed. There are no cheap laughs in the film. On stage, even ballet is mocked and this seemed at odds with Lee Hall’s central message in ‘Billy Elliot’.
This seems to be a problem with West End shows and musicals in particular. A night out needs to be fun. The music and dance contribute to this. Even the story is played for laughs. I understand that this will sell the tickets but not every story deserves (or suits) this treatment.
So, why take a story as poignant as this one and turn it into a light-hearted feel good show? ‘Billy Elliot’ was written for the screen. It works best as a film.
I have two more observations, only one of which is grumpy! It seems that every local journalist writing about a boy who takes ballet lessons labels him ‘a proper Billy Elliot’. It is clear that the name has entered the language as a short hand for dancing boys. Surely, though, only boys who come from backgrounds where dance isn’t a family tradition or where it is actively discouraged can be truly called ‘Billy Elliot’!
The poster for the musical show, below, is terrific. I think it has been replaced now but this one sums up so much of what is wonderful and powerful about boys dancing.