Movie Review: Yuli

British actor Jamie Bell (ROCKETMAN; FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL) was recently on TV speaking with Stephen Colbert about his long-time relationship with Elton John. It seems that Elton was very moved by the story of Billy Elliot because Billy’s father eventually accepted his son for who he was and (spoiler, if you still haven’t seen the movie or the play) went to see him perform. Elton’s father, Stanley Dwight, never accepted Elton’s sexual identity nor did he ever attend one of his son’s concerts. Acclaimed Cuban ballet dancer Carlos Acosta had a different relationship with his father though it wasn’t any less complicated. Carlos’ father, Pedro, wanted him to be a ballet dancer more than he did and he pushed the boy very hard to keep at it, often to the detriment of their relationship. Their bittersweet story is told in both drama and dance in Spanish director Icíar Bollaín’s (FLOWERS FROM ANOTHER WORLD) latest film, YULI.

YULI re-enacts Carlos’ life so far starting in the early ’80s as an impoverished lad on the streets of Havana’s Los Pinos barrio where he impresses his friends breakdancing and moonwalking to Michael Jackson’s music. Pedro (Santiago Alfonso), a truck driver and the descendant of black slaves, is worried about son falling in with the wrong crowd and never being able to break free of the cycle of poverty that has affected his family for generations, so he takes young Carlos (ten-year-old Edlison Manuel Olbera Núñez) and enrolls him in the National Dance School, the top dance academy in Cuba, to study ballet. Carlos, however, doesn’t want to be a ballet dancer. He wants to be the next Pelé and he continually defies both his father and his teachers at the ballet school, often running away. One day, though, he sees a performance by a Russian male ballet dancer (possibly Baryshnikov) and it opens his eyes to a whole new world. Carlos begins to apply himself and it isn’t long before his talent is recognised overseas, first in 1990 when he wins the Gold Medal at the prestigious Prix de Lausanne international dance competition. With that accolade, his career blasts off, taking him to perform with the English National Ballet, the Houston Ballet and finally The Royal Ballet where, at 32, he becomes the first black principal to dance Romeo. All along the way though, Carlos never forgets that he is a son of Cuba.

The story is based on Acosta’s 2007 memoir “No Way Home – a Cuban Dancer’s Story” and is interspersed with electrifying modern dance sequences choreographed by María Rovira with the real Carlos playing the role of Pedro. At age 46 (or perhaps 44 when the film was made), the man can still leap and jeté like the best of them. One sequence that depicts the beating young Carlos receives from Pedro after running away one too many times is particularly poignant.

Unfortunately, YULI loses a bit of steam once Carlos becomes a young man and the character is replaced by actor Keyvin Martinez. At this point, director Bollaín zips over quite a bit of the dancer’s personal history, preferring instead to focus on his loneliness and longing to return to Cuba to live an ordinary life even as his father repeatedly tells him to stay away for his own good. At nearly two hours in length though, perhaps it’s just as well otherwise it would be a three-hour movie.

All in all though, YULI is a very well made film that does the dancer and his life story proper justice. If you’re not into ballet or modern dance, YULI may be a tough sell but if you are, it’s a must-see. You get to see a fair bit of Havana too, which is also fascinating.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, August 2nd, 8:30 am HK time!

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