Billy Elliot: Still electric at 20

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 having given 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‘. Focussing on the playwrights experiences working with young dancers at North East England dancing school. However, it was not until a meeting between Hall and fellow theatre writer and director Stephen Daldry, that the stage play began its cinematic journey. Eventually finding itself picked up by both Working Title and BBC Films, with Daldry placed in the directors chair for his first feature film.

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. While surrounding the narrative with the realist grit of Kes. Ultimately reflecting a complex set of social themes, wrapped in accessible humour and drama aimed squarely at 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 largest social and industrial changes in post war Britain. As communities built around coal found themselves at the forefront of Government plans to privatise publicly owned industries. With the union led clashes that followed not only taking on Government power, but also dividing vulnerable communities in two. As the need to protect workers rights and jobs interfaced with the poverty and lack of social opportunity in many working class communities.

Billy sits in the middle of these two opposing worlds, with his older brother and father fighting for the industry that has kept the community afloat. While younger people find themselves torn between community history and future opportunities. This internal conflict only intensified for Billy following the recent loss of his mother. And a household where grief has been suppressed by anger.

Both the community and internal conflict 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 making a film where success would ride on young shoulders.

The search for Billy began in 1999 in North East England. With Daldry and his production crew clear on the need to find an unknown boy for the lead role. Public auditions led to over two thousand young boys coming forward, each bringing their own style to the role of Billy. With 13 year old Jamie Bell rising to the top of the pile after months of auditions. Bringing with him a cheeky boyish charm, emotive pressence and tenderness. Matched with an ability to dovetail ballet, tap and commercial into youthful and expressionist dance.

With Billy in place, it was now important for Daldry to find the right ensemble cast. Seeking out actors who could embody and reflect the social division of the time and place of Billy Elliots narrative. Ultimately leading the director to actors who had an extensive experience of working with Ken Loach, Willy Russell and Lewis Gilbert. With this search focussed on three roles that were key to the films success; Billy’s dad, brother and dancing teacher Mrs Wilkinson. For the latter, Julie Walters quickly accepted the role of the jaded and disappointed Mrs Wilkinson. A woman trapped in a community where her creative passions were subject to limited cultural ambition. Her relationship to Billy a mix of unfulfilled longing and escape from her own daily life. Her love and respect for the boy shrouded in a cloud of cigarette smoke and marital despair.

While Billy’s dad found a voice in the hands of Gary Lewis, with a performance of stunning depth and complexity. His own pain and grief at loss of his wife crashing up against a community of hurt and anger. While he try’s to find the right path as a new single parent dad. His actions and attempts to unite his family in troubled times complicated by the youthful rebellion of older son Tony (Jamie Draven).

Dancing to a different tune: Masculinity and sexuality in Billy Elliot

Billy Elliot not only uses its time and place in exploring the barriers of social labelling in the childhood development of boys. But also surrounds these with a commentary on masculinity that transcends the boundaries of its 1980s timeframe.

Ultimately delivering a film that is timeless in its reflection of gender identity and conformity. As Billy sits on the precipice of teenage life in a community of limited opportunities. Where men are expected to get a trade or follow in established fatherly footsteps. However, where Billy Elliot truly excels is in reflecting the brief no mans land that exists between the social influence of parents and teenage pressure to conform. A brief gap that at the age of 11 gives Billy the freedom to explore difference, diversity and artistic expression. The pressures of teenage life kept at bay for a brief moment that allows both creativity and difference to flow. With the masculine rules of his community still open to challenge before the curtain of adolescence descends.

This is a theme that managed to speak to the social barriers still faced by boys in 2000. And sadly continues to speak to those barriers and expectations today. Here dance is used not only as exploration of creativity and defiance against social stereotypes. But also as a tool in for exploring masculinity, sexuality and the wider socialisation of boys.

It would be easy to view Billy Elliot as a classic commentary on what we now term as toxic masculinity in communities. However this does not reflect the complexity of the male experience on screen. With the boundaries of masculine behaviour not simply determined by political or social structures. But engrained in a lack of social opportunity and a cultural vacuum created by class. These boundaries are intensified by the social conflict and poverty of the ‘strike’. As male leaders try to desperately secure and continue the industry and livelihood their community has depended on for years. Therefore dance is not seen as weakness as much as it is a frivolity in the face of community destruction. Equally, Billy Elliots complex exploration of sexuality is also engrained in community identity, industrial heritage and perceived or actual class barriers.

“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 social perception of male dance as being linked to gay identity. Ensuring Billy is allowed to express his creativity and artistry free from damaging labels. With his best friend Michael picking up the films exploration of sexual orientation. Ensuring a character who does not fit the ‘dancing boy’ theme of the film flips the audience perception of sexual orientation and dance. This means that we never know, or in fact need to know Billy’s own path to sexual discovery. One that may or may not be heterosexual depending on how you view his journey.

However, while Billy is accepting of his best friends sexuality, there is also an internalised level of homophobia in the character. His anger boiling over when another boy offers a hand of comfort in his audition. While his need to point out he isn’t gay or a ‘sissy’ surrounds his early experience of dance. This reflects the fear Billy feels within his own artistic abilities. A fear of social labelling that unfortunately still rings true in 2020. As he embraces yet also distances his dancing abilities from accusations of homosexuality. His only real security in exploring these perceptions and judgements sitting with his best friend.

These themes of internalised homophobia continue with Billy’s father and brother. Where you could argue that both characters are less concerned by Billy’s dancing as they are by the perceived sexuality linked to his talent. This however, does not stop both of them from finally encouraging Billy’s dreams, but does reflect the process families go through when a child comes out. Where confusion, worry and the need to understand a son, daughter, brother or sister, often clumsily interacts with social acceptance.

Therefore it could be argued that Billy Elliot is a ‘coming out’ movie in all but title. With dance acting as a metaphor for sexual orientation. Delicately weaving the audience into a discussion on perception, judgement and unconscious bias.

Bereavement and Belonging

Circling the themes of masculinity and sexuality that thread through its narrative, bereavement and loss sits centre stage. With the loss of Billy’s mum not only haunting each scene. But also enabling Billy to channel his anger and emotion through dance. But the recent death of his mum also surrounds a disconnect in his relationship to both his father and brother. Where grief has been hidden under blanket of male bravado and repressed emotion.

This is particularly evident in Billy’s dad who has spent his life playing the role of the family breadwinner. Only to find his role now changed; becoming a mum and dad to two boys at a time of community crisis. His own grief and insecurities put on hold as he struggles to redefine his role as head of the family. Meanwhile Billy finds his only link to his mother residing in his grandma who is slowly vanishing with dementia. But equally provides Billy with his only female comfort in a house of testosterone.

The pain of suppressed grief and loss is never more felt than the scenes where Billy’s dad destroys his mums beloved piano for fire wood, before crying over his Christmas dinner. His own isolation and fear boiling over in what is a clear turning point in his relationship with both boys. Meanwhile Billy finds the encouragement his mother would have offered in hands of Mrs Wilkinson. A relationship that also allows him to finally vent much of his anger and emotion from his mothers death in safety.

Dancing Boy

The complex social commentary inherent in Billy Elliot is remarkable. But what makes Billy Elliot truly outstanding is its ability to wrap these themes in a funny, engaging and ultimately feel good film. Ensuring Billy not only danced into the hearts of cinema goers, 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 reach new people.

Billy Elliot may have begun its life as small stage play, but its pure electricity soon elevated it to something truly special in cinema. As the stars shone down on a production that brought together the right people in the right place and at the right time for something truly incredible. A film that is not only timeless, but still speaks to important social issues today.

From launching the film directing career of Stephen Daldry, to giving Jamie Bell his first big break in acting. Billy Elliots legacy continues to grow, from introducing the world to Tom Holland through the musical, to breaking down the barriers facing boys who want to dance. However, look more deeply and this is a film that also asks us to change our perceptions of sexual orientation. And question our socialisation of boys and damaging concepts of masculinity. While believing in a world where anyone can aspire to success through artistic expression.

Director: Stephen Daldry

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