Billy Elliot: 2-Disc Special Edition Review
It’s the mid-80s and twelve-year-old Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell) is growing up in a small mining town in County Durham with his older brother Tony (Jamie Draven) and their widowed father Jackie (Gary Lewis), both miners who are on strike. Billy takes boxing lessons but he’s by everyone’s admission hopeless at it. But one day, his curiosity is piqued by the ballet lessons that Mrs Wilkinson (Julie Walters) gives next door…
Billy Elliot – which premiered at festivals under the title Dancer – was a considerable success on its cinema release in 2000. It duly arrived on DVD in 2003. Now, five years later, as a stage musical version opens in London (directed, as was the film, by Stephen Daldry), along comes a two-disc DVD edition. It’s obvious that the musical is the reason for this new release – and I’ll say more about this when discussing the extras – but it does give us a chance to reassess the film itself. Stephen Daldry’s debut feature, despite some awkward directorial flourishes, still works very well. Much credit has to be given to Lee Hall’s script, which shows signs of having been developed more than is usually the case with lowish-budget British movies (it was the first release of Working Title’s low-budget WT2 division), with a solid three-act foundation to Billy’s story. Despite the specifics of time and place, it’s a story that seems to have a universal appeal. It’s a feel-good film that doesn’t patronise its audience.
Daldry was, as he still is, a distinguished theatre director when he made this first feature. (A couple of years earlier, he had made a short film called Eight.) You sense he’s a classical filmmaker at heart, as his attempts to liven up some of Billy’s dance sequences with jump cuts seem a little forced. That classical style worked well when Daldry went on to make The Hours, which I seem to be in a minority in liking. However, he pulls off a first-rate riot sequence, scored to The Clash’s “London Calling”. In Billy Elliot, as with many first-timers, he was paired with a very experienced director of photography, Brian Tufano, whose work here is a model of unshowy craftsmanship. The contributions of Gary Lewis and Julie Walters, less so Jamie Draven, help enormously. But the film belongs to its young star, Jamie Bell. The only one of the four principals to actually come from the area where the film is set, he gives a thoroughly engaging performance – and just as importantly, he convinces as a dancer as well.
Given the film’s subject matter, Billy Elliot contains several traps for unwary filmmakers, but Daldry and his collaborators manage to avoid them. Ballet falls outside, well outside, Billy’s father and brother’s ideas of what boys do. Masculinity is defined by being different and separate to girls, and maintaining a firm boundary. It’s an identity bound up with one’s job: to deprive a man of the latter, so that he can barely look after his family, is to emasculate him. It’s also an identity bound up with class: some of Billy’s family’s opposition to Mrs Wilkinson is due to her middle-classness. Given this macho environment, the presence of Billy’s gay schoolfriend Michael, given to dressing in his sister’s clothes, is something of a liberal fantasy: he’s likely to be tolerated even less than Billy’s dancing lessons. It’s obvious why he’s there: it’s to draw a line between Billy and any suggestions of homosexuality, as does the budding attraction between Billy and Mrs Wilkinson’s daughter Debbie. There are a few other false notes. The use of T. Rex’s music, though effective, is more than a decade out of time. Billy would have been born around the time when Marc Bolan was at his peak. Maybe they were Billy’s late mother’s records, as you can’t imagine his father or brother liking T.Rex, especially as their fans were overwhelmingly teenage girls. But these are all minor flaws in a film that deserves its success.
This release of Billy Elliot is on two discs, a DVD-5 for the film itself, and a DVD-9 for the extras. It is encoded for Region 2 only.
Billy Elliot has an anamorphic transfer, in the correct aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The picture, while faithful to Brian Tufano’s low-key realist camerawork, is very good indeed: sharp, with strong (though not over-vivid) colours, convincing flesh tones, and strong blacks. I haven’t seen the earlier DVD release, so can’t make any comparisons, but I have no complaints about this new version.
There’s one soundtrack, in Dolby Digital 5.1. This is a surprisingly active mix, with the surrounds used for music and quite a lot of directional sound, particularly during the scenes involving the miners’ strike. Again, no complaints here. Dialogue is always very clear, though some strong accents might cause some people to resort to the subtitles. Fortunately, they are provided for the feature and all the extras. There are eighteen chapter stops.
There are no extras, not even a commentary, on the first disc, so on to the second. As I say above, the new stage musical is obviously the impetus for this DVD release, and the stage musical is given more prominence than the film on the main menu – it’s subdivided into “The Musical”, “The Movie” and “The Music”, in that order.
“The Musical” is subdivided into three. “The Real Billy Elliot Diaries” (20:28), is a portrait of the three boys playing Billy on stage: James Lomas, George Maguire and Liam Mower. It shows them at home and describes the audition process. “From Screen to Stage” (19:26) covers the process of converting the story into a musical, including interviews with Stephen Daldry, Lee Hall (who wrote the book and lyrics of the stage show) and Elton John (who wrote the music). “Billy Elliot The Musical” (0:31) is simply a short trailer for the show. There isn’t one for the film though.
“The Movie” begins with the making-of featurette “Breaking Free” (21:35). Your heart sinks as it begins with a quote-heavy saccharine narration that begins “Once in a while there comes a movie…” Fortunately it gets better than that, with some worthwhile interview clips from Daldry and others. For those who weren’t around in 1984 Britain, it does give you enough information you need to know about the miners’ strike. (Ardent Thatcherites will certainly disagree, but I suspect they won’t be watching this film anyway. Still less will they be lining up for a musical with a song like “Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher” in it.) This is the only extra carried over from the original DVD release. It betrays its age by the fact that Daldry’s hair seems to have gone completely grey in the last five years.
Next up are a set of deleted scenes, with optional director’s commentary. These are subdivided into three: “Billy’s Story” (9:39), “Tony’s Story” (7:17) and “Dad’s Story” (5:35). The middle section indicates that Jamie Draven’s performance as Tony has been hampered to some extent by pre-release cutting, which Daldry acknowledges in his commentary. There are also three extended scenes, totalling 5:40.
”The Music” shows each musical number in the film, with a commentary from Daldry on how the music was chosen. T.Rex was in Lee Hall’s original script, though songs like “London Calling” and The Jam’s “Town Called Malice” were added in editing. Each musical number can be played separately, but there is a “Play All” function. Daldry is a lucid commentator, so it’s a pity that he hasn’t provided one for the feature itself. All the extras are in 4:3, with extracts from the film in non-anamorphic 1.85:1.
If you’re a fan of the film, then this is the version to get (the old single-discer is still available). If you’re coming to the story through the musical, then this DVD does double duty as souvenir of the stage show and a chance to catch up with the original film as well.