Billy Elliot: Still electric at 20

Billy Elliot is now available to rent, buy or stream.

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, redefining the power of British cinema and challenging social views on class, dance and opportunity. Billy Elliot was and still is a sweet and powerful dissection of masculinity, sexuality, class and community that continues to find new audiences each year. Its critical and financial success would give birth to a highly successful West End musical while inspiring a range of films, from Kinky Boots to Coda and Son of Rambo.

Billy Elliot started its life in the hands of playwright Lee Hall, under the title ‘Dancer’ with Hall exploring his own experiences teaching young dancers at a North East England dancing school. However, it was a chance meeting between Hall and fellow theatre writer and director Stephen Daldry that would see Billy’s cinematic journey begin. Here Daldry and Hall would slowly shape and mould the story into a feasible screenplay before presenting it to Working Title and the newly formed BBC Films.

Billy Elliot would play to the success of a range of feel-good British movies from The Full Monty to East is East while equally dovetailing the humour with the social commentary of A Room for Romeo Brass. The result would reflect a complex set of social themes through accessible drama aimed squarely at the family movie market.

Finding Billy

Set against the backdrop of the 1980s miner’s strike, Billy Elliot is centred around a community struggle to survive during one of the most extensive social and industrial changes of post-war Britain. Here communities built on coal found themselves at the forefront of Government plans to privatise publicly owned industries and reduce coal consumption. The result was a series of union-led clashes with the government that divided already vulnerable communities in two. The need to protect workers’ rights and jobs butting up against the poverty of social opportunity many working-class communities faced.

Billy sits in the middle of these two worlds, his older brother and father fighting for the industry that has kept their community afloat, while the younger generation finds themselves torn between history and change. This internal conflict is only intensified for Billy following the loss of his mother, leaving him in a household where masculine emotional barriers block the grieving process.

Both the community conflict and internal trauma at the heart of Billy’s life required a boy who could reflect anger, joy and compassion while remaining believable, relatable and honest. This was no easy feat for a production team where the film’s success would ride on the shoulders of the boy cast.

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 role. Public auditions led to over two thousand young boys coming forward, each bringing their unique style to the role of Billy. However, it was 13-year-old Jamie Bell who quickly rose to the top of the pile after months of searching. Bell brought a cheeky boyish charm, dynamic presence and tenderness alongside a love of tap and commercial dance.

With Billy now in place, Daldry began to build his ensemble cast. The director sought out actors who could embody and reflect the social division of Billy’s narrative time and place. This would lead Daldry to a group of actors who had extensive experience working with Ken Loach, Willy Russell and Lewis Gilbert. Julie Walters quickly accepted the part of the jaded Mrs Wilkinson, a woman trapped in a community where her creative passions were subject to limited cultural ambition. Walters would lace her character with 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 barriers of a single dad grieving the loss of his wife and community. Here his attempts to unite his family during troubled times are only further complicated by the 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 casting choices, each performance reflecting the reality of family life in communities struggling to keep their heads above water.

Masculinity and Sexuality in Billy Elliot

Billy Elliot uses its time and place to explore the social labelling of boys and themes of changing masculinity in 80s Britain. These key themes continue to speak to today’s masculine experience, resulting in a film that transcends the boundaries of its 1980s location. Here, Billy’s journey reflects the interface between class, opportunity, art, and gender through the lens of a classic coming of age story. In Billy Elliot, dance is used to explore individual creativity and the internal struggle for freedom and the need for an emotional release that Billy keeps locked away. However, it is also a tool to explore the changing face of masculinity and the social divide of experience for young boys.

Many would label the restrictions Billy faces as he learns to dance as being rooted in toxic masculinity. However, this sweeping and simple statement does not reflect the complexity of the male experience on-screen. Here the boundaries of masculine behaviour are not simply determined by political or social structures but are ingrained in a lack of social opportunity present 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. Similarly, the film’s exploration of sexuality and gender identity is also ingrained in themes of community identity, heritage, and perception rather than toxic masculinity or rampant homophobia.  

“Just because I like ballet doesn’t mean I’m a poof, you know”

From the outset, Billy chooses to rebuff the stereotypes attached to male dance as being gay, expressing his creativity free from any social labels. Here 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. Both boys defy the boundaries of masculinity in the eyes of their community while taking comfort in each other’s experimentation and defiance. 

Billy accepts his best friend’s sexuality but also carries an internalised level of homophobia that spills over when another boy offers a hand of comfort during his audition. This confrontation is bound by a need for Billy to point out ‘he isn’t gay,’ hinting at the journey Billy still needs to take in accepting his talent and his newfound place as a young male dancer. However, rather than being solely rooted in homophobia, this reflects the fear surrounding Billy’s understanding of his artistic abilities and society’s view of manliness.

Dancing Boy

The social commentary present in Billy Elliot is remarkable for a family feature that is both funny, engaging and feel-good. Here Billy not only dances into the hearts of each viewer but allows for broader discussions on masculinity, community, sexuality and gender constructs. Billy Elliot may have begun its life as a small play, but its electricity elevated it to something much bigger. This cultural phenomenon takes a sledgehammer to the barriers of perceived masculinity facing young boys without ever pointing a finger or isolating men.

Director: Stephen Daldry

Cast:  Jamie BellJulie WaltersJean Heywood, Jamie Draven, Gary Lewis, Stuart Wells




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