Tutor: “What does it feel like when you’re dancing?”
Billy: “Don’t know. Sorta feels good. Sorta stiff and that, but once I get going… then I like, forget everything. And… sorta disappear. Sorta disappear. Like I feel a change in my whole body. And I’ve got this fire in my body. I’m just there. Flyin’ like a bird. Like electricity. Yeah, like electricity.”
A couple of days ago, I’d been thinking about my own journey as a young kid discovering the arts – and how eventually I found my own voice. I was reminiscing about growing up in Panama and being consumed by movies – and how my dad – who was a lawyer, and I guess he’d wished I’d followed in his footsteps – found it in himself the generosity to encourage my pursuit. I was also fortunate to find that special tutor at the Peddie School – Jeffrey Holcombe – whom all of us pursuing the arts should be lucky to find. He proved to be most enthusiastic about my possibilities – and believed in me long before I started to do so. Thinking about all of this, I understood I needed to revisit “Billy Elliot” (2000) – Stephen Daldry’s auspicious film debut – about an eleven year-old in County Durham, in the northeast of England, who discovers a need for dancing. It’s a wondrous film, warm – funny and uplifting – a terrific valentine to those in our lives who encouraged us along the way to be ourselves.
Billy likes to borrow his brother’s records and jump up and down on his bed – expressing himself. His widowed dad and brother Tony are on strike against the coal mine, and the police’s presence in riot gear is felt throughout the town. Billy looks after his grandmother who’s suffering with Alzheimer’s. He’s expected to take boxing lessons after school at the Everington Boys Club, a fact he doesn’t enjoy for he always gets beaten up. One day, the ballet teacher Mrs. Wilkinson brings her class to use a section of the gym because her space is being used as a soup kitchen for the strikers. Billy is fascinated by the dancing and the music. Forced to stay and practice on the punching bag, he finds himself enticed to join in the ballet class. “Go on. I dare you,” Mrs. Wilkinson tempts him.
Billy’s mother died when he was young – and there’s grief he hasn’t worked out. He spends time with his best friend Michael who also feels like an outcast – and who is starting to understand he’s a homosexual. Billy fully supports him without judgement, but matter-of-factly tells him, “just because I like ballet doesn’t mean I’m a poof, you know.” In the meantime, the strike is causing a strain on the town as well as his family. His dad finds out he’s been taking ballet classes instead of boxing and forbids him to continue. Mrs. Wilkinson sees great potential in Billy and continues tutoring him. She believes he’s good enough to audition for the Royal School Ballet. In dancing Billy has a way to channel all his vexation and heartache. For Mrs. Wilkinson, Billy’s potential is a way for her to overcome her own frustration. Her daughter Debbie tells him that “she’s unfulfilled – that’s why she does dancing!” Billy’s father has to deal with his old-fashioned views about masculinity, his feelings of inadequacy about raising a child without his mom and the strike. It is through dancing that Billy finds his identity.
Stephen was nominated for the Oscar for best director for “Billy Elliot.” It was followed by two other nods for his subsequent work in “The Hours” (2012) and “The Reader” (2008.). Prior to helming this film, he was a celebrated theatre director. His work in this film is jaunty – matching the resilience and spirit of Billy. There’s a fable like quality to the proceedings mixed in with earthiness. There’s a very strong sense of design. Notice the wallpaper in Billy’s house, the color of the kitchen. The juxtaposition of contrasting ideas through the editing is dynamic – scenes of dancing parallel cut with riots. The sight of Billy dancing in the streets with the ocean in the background and framed on either side by rows of houses is spectacularly lyrical. He combines the brutality and grittiness of a row of policeman in riot gear with the innocence of a young girl walking past them. He coaxes terrific performances from everyone involved. Dame Julie Walters – who was nominated for the Oscar for best supporting actress – brings grit and the right amount of warmth as the mentor who is living vicariously through Billy’s flight. Gary Lewis as the father breaks your heart. Jamie Bell in his acting debut is superb – and what an expressive dancer. Watching him huff, stomp and express his emotions through his limbs is electric.
Billy: “I think I’m scared, Dad.”
Dad: “That’s okay, son. We’re all scared.”
Available to stream on Peacock and to rent on Amazon Prime, Microsoft, Google Play, YouTube, iTunes, Vudu, Apple TV, FandangoNOW, Redbox and DIRECTV.
Written by Lee Hall
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Starring Julie Walters, Gary Lewis, Jamie Bell, Jamie Draven and Adam Cooper
Director Stephen Daldry on “Billy Elliot”
“Billy is struggling to articulate something that he has never had to articulate [before],” Daldry explains. The other young dancers, who’ve grown up in a more privileged setting, find it easier to talk about what they love about the art form they’ve chosen. However, for Billy, dance wasn’t just a hobby, it saved him. The scene is an interesting exploration of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of “cultural capital,” which suggests that someone’s clothing, mannerism, style of speech, and taste (to name a few) not only demonstrate someone’s competence, but their social position in society. Unable to initially answer the judge’s question, Billy shows how limited his world has been…Billy eventually answer and says: “Dunno. It sort of feels good. It’s sort of safe and that… But, once I get going, I sort of forget everything. I sort of disappear. I can feel a change in my whole body. I’m just there… I have this fire in my whole body. I’m flying… like a bird. Like electricity… Yeah, like electricity.”Though the speech is raw and not as articulate as he wants, Billy’s response is “very honest and very emotional,” Daldry says – the scene is “a struggle of struggle.” But it’s not just about Billy finding his voice, “it’s about the dad as well. He has never heard his son express what he feels like.” Daldry added that the question the panel poses Billy—“what does it feel like when you’re dancing?”—is a “spur” for “him to explain to his father why they are there in the first place. He [Billy] is not really telling the panel at all. He’s actually telling his father what he feels like.”
“…For Daldry, the “loss of community” is key to the film’s global appeal. “It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, people understand the idea that you’re part of an industrial, working class group that is being discarded.” And its question—of what happens to communities devastated by de-industrialization and privatization—has been thrust into the spotlight with the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump. “I’m not suggesting that people want to be miners. Or that mining is a good idea. Or a reliance on fossil fuels is a good idea. But what I do know is a good idea is keeping those communities strong, safe, and giving them a valid means of employment,” Daldry says. The consequences of not doing that, as well the destruction of the labor movement juxtaposed with the “weird kid that wants to get out,” makes the message behind Billy Elliot just as relevant now.” (indiewire.com)
Actor Jamie Bell on Landing and Playing the Role of Billy Elliot
“I was watching a soccer game at the time, so I was more into the soccer game than what the director said when he called me up — so I wasn’t paying much attention to him, actually. The whole week before he actually phoned I was really nervous. I wasn’t eating properly, I was getting home from school really early and checking the messages on the phone, getting the phone when it rang before anyone else got to it, saying “Hello, hello?”…I’d say his personality is a lot like me. He’s a very mature character; I like to think of myself as a mature person. He’s very open; he’s got a lot of responsibility; he has to look after his nana; and he’s got a friend who is deciding which way he is turning (coming to terms with his homosexuality). So he is going through a hard time, but he is embracing it.” (cnn.com)
Actor Julie Walters on Playing Mrs. Wilkinson
…Billy’s relationship with his dance teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson, was another key element in the film and was allowed to build onscreen just as Bell’s did with his own teacher. “You’re with your dance teacher so often, it happens that way – the bond just grows stronger. Sometimes they’ll drive you too hard, but they only want to get the best out of you when they know you can do better,” he announced. Walters embraced the many challenges in the evolving relationship between Billy and her character, Mrs. Wilkinson: “Mrs. Wilkinson is the one pushing Billy. She clocks his talent and grabs it hard because it’s what she never had – that spark and talent. She sees that he can achieve something that she never could. So she becomes completely obsessed with him and forces him onward- partly against his will. But she knows he’s got that ‘thing’ that will enable him to make it and she wants to be part of it,” said Walters. It is the unique relationship between Billy and his dance teacher that helps make the script so different. “She doesn’t treat him like a child at all, but more like a man,” said Walters. “She makes no allowances for his age and they bicker like lovers. When Billy gets the audition, he doesn’t come and tell her that he made it. I think he feels guilty that he’s leaving and it’s too adult a thing for him to deal with emotionally. It’s a bitter-sweet movie.”
Walters could empathise with how it felt to go against the grain of what was expected as a child: “My mother wanted me to be a nurse. ‘Acting!’ she’d say, ‘what kind of job is that? You need a job where you’ve got a pension!’ In a similar sense, Billy was expected to become a miner, yet not only was the tradition of following your father into the mines being destroyed, but also the boy doesn’t want to do it anyway. He wants to be a ballet dancer!” Walters’ character is instrumental in Billy’s rite of passage. “Billy is bashed from every angle. He has to grow up quickly because his mother has died and it’s a male dominated society he’s growing up in. That’s why he needs dance, it’s a release from it all – a voice for his anger and his grief,” said Walters. “It’s hard enough for a working class child to say they want to be a ballet dancer, but set against the dreadful situation of the mines closing – where there was nothing for the people but the drugs, the unemployment, the poverty- it’s even more challenging.” About her own character, Walters added, “I do like her, she’s so real. She’s not a saint; she’s an angry, disappointed person. The dark side of people is far more interesting than the light side of them.” (cinema.com)
Daldry on Casting “Billy Elliot”
“…it was a chore. You have to see thousands of kids. We were looking for something quite specific; the kids had to come from a very specific geographic area (for the accents) as well as a dance background, or some sort of movement we could work with. As it happens, Jamie had a dance background but we still looked at kids that didn’t necessarily have them. And then they had to act…Right at the last minute, but he’d been there all the way through. He had about seven auditions and the last audition lasted two weeks. And there was another kid in the other room having a two-week audition as well. The idea that Oh my God, this is the kid — in my experience it just doesn’t work like that. We had to find out a lot about what sort of dance he knew, how his body might work, whether he could find the means of expression through dance that we were interested in. Jamie’s gift is rhythm, primarily. We also had to audition the parents, to make sure they could support their kid through what could have been a very difficult time. Even if the kid’s got determination, tenacity and courage, you still have to work out if he can act, what’s his attention span, you know. In the end, you have to make sure the kid’s got emotional depth — kids hide it better than adults.” (indiewire.com)
About Director Stephen Daldry
Stephen Daldry was born on May 2, 1961 in Dorset, England. Daldry’s father—a bank manager who died when Daldry was 15—discouraged his early interest in theatre. Abetted by his cabaret singer mother, however, Daldry joined a theatre troupe in Taunton and by age 15 had resolved to direct. He attended the University of Sheffield on a Royal Air Force scholarship, earning a bachelor’s degree (1982) in English literature. At Sheffield he directed the university theatre company and cultivated his radical bona fides with forays into socialism and a penchant for wearing pillbox hats. Daldry then further flouted convention as an apprentice clown in Italy. Upon returning to England, he settled in Sheffield, where he became the artistic director of the Metro Theatre Company (1984–86) and apprenticed at the Crucible Theatre (1986–88). While presiding over London’s Gate Theatre (1989–92), he championed obscure works by international writers, an ethos equally apparent during his subsequent tenure as artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre (1992–98). Daldry’s direction of J.B. Priestley’s “An Inspector Calls” for the National Theatre in 1992 earned him a Laurence Olivier Award and, when the production traveled to Broadway (1994), a Tony Award. He returned to Broadway in 1999 as the director of British playwright David Hare’s one-man show “Via Dolorosa.” Daldry—at the time credited with one short film—was then unexpectedly tapped to direct “Billy Elliot.” The film—about a boy who finds refuge in ballet—was nominated for several Academy Awards, including best director. Daldry then helmed “The Hours” (2002), Hare’s adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. A series of three meditations on Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway,” the film starred Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, and—as Woolf—Nicole Kidman. Daldry again received an Oscar nomination for best director, and Kidman claimed best actress honours.
In 2005 Daldry premiered “Billy Elliot,” the Musical, a stage adaptation of his earlier film, in London. The production, which featured music by Elton John, won four Olivier Awards. The Broadway production (2008) garnered 10 Tony Awards, including best musical and best director honours for Daldry. He returned to the big screen with “The Reader” (2008), which was adapted by Hare from German author Bernhard Schlink’s novel…The film earned Academy Award nominations for best picture and for Daldry’s direction as well as an Oscar for Winslet. In his next film, “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” (2011), based on a novel by American writer Jonathan Safran Foer, a precocious nine-year-old boy wanders around New York City in search of the lock to a key left behind by his father, who died in the September 11 attacks. In 2013 Daldry directed Helen Mirren in Peter Morgan’s play “The Audience,” which imagined the private weekly conversations between Queen Elizabeth II and the succession of British prime ministers over six decades. He then oversaw a 2014 revival of David Hare’s “Skylight.” The critically acclaimed production, which starred Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy as former lovers, earned Daldry a Tony nomination for best director. Daldry returned to cinema with “Trash” (2014), a drama about three boys who stumble upon a political scandal while picking through refuse in the favela they call home. He then reteamed with Morgan on “The Crown” (2016– ), a Netflix TV series about the life of Elizabeth II; Daldry served as executive producer and directed several episodes. In 2018 he won an Emmy Award for his direction. In 2017 Daldry co-directed “The Jungle,” a stage play set in the migrant encampment in Calais, France, just before it was razed in 2016. Written by two Englishmen who traveled to the camp and set up a theatre, the play not only explored the predicament of the refugees but also the guilt and helplessness of the camp’s volunteers. Daldry then directed “The Inheritance,” which premiered in London in 2018. Inspired by E.M. Forster’s classic novel “Howards End” (1910), the play considers the lives of young gay men a generation after the height of the AIDS crisis. The production opened on Broadway in 2019. Daldry was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2004. (britannica.com)