It is hard to believe that Billy Elliot first danced its way into our hearts at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival almost 20 years ago. Not only redefining the power of British cinema but also challenging and changing social views of class, dance and opportunity. With a sweet but ultimately powerful dissection of masculinity, sexuality and community that still manages to talk to new audiences each year. Its critical and financial success giving birth to a highly successful West End musical, as well as inspiring a whole range of subsequent films. From Kinky Boots to Blinded by the Light and Son of Rambo. So as Billy Elliot reaches a truly momentous birthday. Join us as we explore the power, cultural impact and legacy of a film that still flows with electricity twenty years on.
Billy Elliot started its life in the hands of playwright Lee Hall, under the title ‘Dancer’. Here, the playwrights experience working with young dancers at a North East England dancing school found a voice. However, it was not until a meeting between Hall and fellow theatre writer and director Stephen Daldry that the play began its cinematic journey. Eventually finding itself picked up by both Working Title and BBC Films, with Daldry placed in the director’s chair for his first feature production.
However, Billy Elliot posed a significant risk for the studios involved in adapting a story that transcended genre boundaries. Combining the feel-good working-class vibes of The Full Monty with the humour of East is East and social commentary of A Room for Romeo Brass. Ultimately reflecting a complex set of social themes while wrapping those themes in an accessible drama aimed squarely at the family movie market.
Finding Billy: The style and artistic vision of a British classic
Set against the backdrop of the 1980s miner’s strike. Billy Elliot reflects a communities struggle in what was one of the most extensive social and industrial changes of post-war Britain. As communities built around coal found themselves at the forefront of Government plans to privatise publicly owned industries. The union-led clashes that followed not only challenging Government power but also dividing vulnerable communities in two. The need to protect workers rights and jobs interfacing with the poverty of social opportunity many working-class communities faced.
Billy sits in the middle of these two opposing worlds, with his older brother and father fighting for the industry that has kept their community afloat. At the same time, the younger generation finds themselves torn between community history and future opportunities. This internal conflict is only intensified for Billy following the recent loss of his mother in a household where masculine emotional barriers block the grieving process.
Both the community conflict and internal strife at the heart of Billy’s life required a boy who could reflect both anger, joy and compassion. While also remaining believable, relatable and honest. No easy feat for a production team where success would ride on the young shoulders of its star. The only answer to this, the casting of an unknown boy, who encapsulated Billy’s artistic drive while remaining down to earth and natural.
The search for Billy began in North East England in early 1999. With Daldry and his production crew clear on the need to find an unknown boy for the lead role. The public auditions led to over two thousand young boys coming forward, each bringing their unique style to the role of Billy. However, the 13-year-old Jamie Bell quickly rose to the top of the pile after months of auditions. Bringing with him a cheeky boyish charm, dynamic presence and tenderness. These traits matched by an ability to dovetail ballet, tap and commercial dance into a youthful and expressionist form.
With Billy in place, it was now crucial for Daldry to find the right ensemble cast. The director seeking out actors who could embody and reflect the social division of Billy’s narrative time and place. Ultimately leading Daldry to a group of actors who had extensive experience working with Ken Loach, Willy Russell and Lewis Gilbert. The importance of the following three roles sitting central to the narrative; Billy’s dad, brother and dancing teacher Mrs Wilkinson. With Julie Walters quickly accepting the part of the jaded Mrs Wilkinson. A woman trapped in a community where her creative passions were subject to her community’s limited cultural ambitions. Her relationship with Billy a mix of unfulfilled longing; her love and care held in a haze of cigarette smoke and marital despair.
Meanwhile, the role of Billy’s dad found a voice in the hands of Gary Lewis. An actor who could embody the complexity of the masculine confines of a single dad still grieving. His resulting performance one of stunning depth and complexity, as grief and loss crash up against a community of pain and anger. His attempts to unite his family during troubled times only complicated by the youthful rebellion of his older son Tony (Jamie Draven). A young man who uses his anger as a shield for his pain and insecurity.
Much of Billy Elliot’s success stems from these very casting choices, each actor believable and sincere. At the same time reflecting the reality of many families within coal mining communities who struggled to keep their heads above water while continuing to fight for justice. Even when the sheer power of Government action slowly unpicked the community they once held dear, driving a wedge between streets, individuals and towns that would endear for decades to come.
Dancing to a different tune: Masculinity and sexuality in Billy Elliot
Billy Elliot uses its time and place in exploring the social labelling of boys and surrounds this with a commentary on masculinity. The key themes of the narrative continuing to speak to the masculine experience today, resulting in a film that transcends the boundaries of its 1980s timeframe. The journey Billy takes reflecting the interface between class, opportunity, art and gender conformity. While, in turn, layering this with a classic coming of age story.
And it is here where dance is used not only as an exploration of individual creativity but also as a vehicle for grief and defiance. The energetic and abstract form of Billy’s routines layered with an internal struggle for freedom and the need for emotional release. At the same time as his childhood cocoon is breached by the reality of impending teenage life and the restrictions it holds.
It would be easy to label the restrictions Billy faces under the now widely used term of ‘toxic masculinity. However, this sweeping term does not wholly reflect the complexity of the male experience on-screen. The boundaries of masculine behaviour are not simply determined by political or social structures but are ingrained in a lack of social opportunity and a cultural vacuum. These boundaries are intensified by the social conflict and poverty of the ‘strike’. As male leaders try to desperately secure the industry and livelihood their community has depended on for years. Billy’s dancing is never viewed as a weakness but more as frivolity in the face of community destruction. Simultaneously, the film’s conversation on sexuality is also ingrained more in community identity, industrial heritage, and perception than toxic masculinity or homophobia.
“Just because I like ballet doesn’t mean I’m a poof, you know”Billy – Billy Elliot (2000)
From the outset, Billy Elliot chooses to rebuff the stereotypes attached to male dance as gay. With Billy allowed to express his creativity free from labels. Instead, the narrative places its exploration of sexual orientation into the hands of Billy’s best friend, Michael. A character who has no interest in dance but does enjoy dressing up in his sister’s clothes. With both boys defying the boundaries of masculinity in the eyes of society. While at the same time taking comfort in each other’s experimentation and defiance.
However, while Billy accepts his best friends sexuality, there is also an internalised level of homophobia within his character. His internal struggle for acceptance boiling over when another boy offers a hand of comfort during his audition. The confrontation that follows bound to the need for Billy to point out ‘he isn’t gay’ or a ‘sissy’. Hinting at the journey Billy still needs to take in accepting his talents. This reflects the fear that surrounds Billy’s understanding of his artistic abilities. As he embraces yet also distances himself from accusations of homosexuality—his only absolute security in exploring these perceptions and judgements sitting within his relationship with Michael.
In many respects, Billy Elliot is a ‘coming out’ movie in all but title. With dance acting as a metaphor for sexual orientation. As it delicately weaves a coming of age story with discussions on perception, judgement and unconscious bias.
The social commentary inherent in Billy Elliot is remarkable for a family feature. But what makes Billy Elliot genuinely outstanding is its ability to wrap these themes in a funny, engaging and feel-good film. Ensuring Billy not only dances into the hearts of viewers but also their minds. While in turn enabling the dancing boy to make the transition to the West End stage. Where the story continued to grow and develop.
Billy Elliot may have begun its life as a small play, but its pure electricity soon elevated it to something much bigger; a cultural phenomenon. And from introducing us to Jamie Bell and Tom Holland, Billy Elliot’s reach continues to grow. As it smashes barriers facing boys who want to dance in every country it touches. Purposefully and delightfully asking us all to question our socialisation of boys. While at the same time encouraging a belief in a world where anyone can aspire to success through artistic expression.
Director: Stephen Daldry