Stephen Daldry's low-budget drama was an unexpected box office smash, earning Oscar nominations and even spawning a musical. Two decades later, Ella Kemp looks back on the British classic
In the summer of 1999, a tiny film crew on a £5 million budget spent seven weeks in Ellington making a movie about a boy who just wanted to dance. The playwright Lee Hall had rustled up a one-page synopsis – about a kid growing up in a mining village in 1984 with aspirations of being a ballet dancer. Nobody believed in Billy Elliot, and there had never been anything like it before. And there are still remarkably few films that have achieved what it has, twenty years on.
From the off, Billy Elliot was always bound to be different. The film, Stephen Daldry’s feature debut, was set to premiere at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival under the name Dancer – which was then changed to avoid confusion with Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, also in competition that year. Such a decision, to move away from the generic and into something more personal, feels emblematic of the film’s raw brilliance that was and still is so easy to love.
Despite its legacy being one of unanimous acclaim, no studio really wanted to make Billy Elliot back in 1998. “Billy Elliot was an endless process of trying to explain to people why it’s good,” Hall told Socialist Review, adding that a great irony was in “the struggle of trying to persuade people that the story is so relevant, which is exactly what the film is about.”
The story is quite simple: in the fictional town of Everington in County Durham, 11-year-old Billy is sent to boxing classes, but wants to dance instead – though the film is built around several conflicts. As well as Billy’s secret passion, the film also wrestles with Billy’s father Jackie and older brother Tony navigating the miners strike of 1984-5. This isn’t a film clinically dissecting the political upheaval of that time, nor is it a technical probing of what it takes to be a ballet dancer at a young age. Billy Elliot marries its emotional ambition with its socio-economic context, to produce a story at once wholly specific and entirely relatable.
“It’s a story we all know – someone trying to express himself or herself,” Daldry told QZ in 2017 – the year Billy Elliot the Musical opened in Madrid. In 2020, such a quote feels reductive, or potentially generic, underselling the film as one of thousands of films focusing on a plucky underdog dreaming of making it big. The template has been recycled to death. But there is a raw power to Billy Elliot that you just can’t fake – which we’ve all been learning from and trying to replicate for two decades since. Certainly, Richard Curtis should have made time for a rewatch before writing his love letter to the Beatles, Yesterday.
Jamie Bell started dancing at the age of six, and was teased by his school friends, who said boys shouldn’t be learning tap dance, they should be boxing. But he carried on, transported by the rhythm, his perseverance landing him the role of Billy at the age of 11, beating over 2000 boys for the part. “He had that elusive thing that allows you to fall in love with a child and be terribly concerned about what happens to him,” Daldry said in the film’s production notes. “We found our needle in the haystack.”
It’s this – the strange synchronicity between actor and character – that feeds the authenticity that endures. It’s a human connection, an empathy and a sense of ambition that only comes from seeing something genuine blossom as if by magic. It’s what happened when Sir Elton John saw the film during its Cannes premiere, and, so moved by the story which reminded him of his own fraught relationship with his father, he proposed the idea of a stage musical to Daldry and Hall. He ended up writing the music for the show which ran for over 4000 performances between 2005 and 2016, winning four Laurence Oliver awards, ten Drama Desks and ten Tonys.
Whether you feel that the stage musical, clearly beloved by so many, manages to emulate the unpolished brilliance of the film (this writer unfortunately does not – there is a glossy sheen to the production that dilutes the movie’s shaggy charm), its success is another testament to the unlikely strength of such a story. And in terms of the film, the numbers don’t lie. The £5 million budget ended up reaping a handsome £85 million at the box office upon release.
The unassuming triumph is the result of an unpretentious script, performed by empathetic, brave actors. On paper, Billy’s passion for dance being kept a secret from his stern father and brother could lead to a melodramatic fallout, one of violence and sensationalised pain – but that could have never been Billy Elliot. Instead, Jackie reckons with his reservations independently, and ultimately learns how to realign his preconceptions in order to fight for what’s right for his son. He doesn’t let go of his sense of self, but he recognises how his values and those of his son can, and need to, coexist.
Similarly, Billy’s relationship with his best friend Michael demonstrates a sensitivity that still feels so rare. Billy keeps telling everyone – the girls in his dance class, his dance teacher, even Michael – that he most definitely isn’t gay, that he loves to dance purely because he loves to dance, making sure his sexuality never plays a part in it. But when Michael, calmly comfortable in his skin at the age of 11, comes out to Billy, the confrontation is one of quiet loyalty that still feels extraordinary. Billy has a split second to rearrange his own bias, to understand how prejudice prevents a person from fully understanding and growing into themselves. How could he turn on Michael for finding himself in ways Billy still dreams of? Whether it’s about who you love or what you love, each boy comes to terms with what makes their heart sing with wisdom and bravery, to accept it and pursue it, far beyond their years.
The wonder of Billy Elliot is crystallised in a short pivotal speech given by Billy at an audition, explaining how it feels when he dances. “Dunno,” is his instinctive response. And why wouldn’t it be? So rarely are boys ever asked to confront their feelings – to process impulses with any kind of distance or wider context. Both in 1984 and in 2000, stories such as these were told so infrequently. In 2020, we’re still trying, but such honesty and deep, unpredictable emotion can get lost in translation. Still, Billy goes on and finds his words. “Once I get going, I, like, 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.” He’s got one more thought on the tip of his tongue: “Like electricity… yeah, like electricity.” It’s this fleeting jolt of energy, a chance bolt of lightning in the dark, that captures the enduring spirit of Billy Elliot. It was always electricity out of thin air. And a feeling like that? However many years on, it can never fade.