Movies

Yuli: The Carlos Acosta Story review – unflinching biopic of a ballet superstar

This energetic account of the life of the electrifying Cuban never shies away from the truth about his tough upbringing

This energetic, emotionally reflective movie follows the rise of the Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta from scrappy juvenile tearaway to ballet superstar. It’s directed by Icíar Bollaín from a script by Ken Loach regular Paul Laverty that adapts the dancer’s memoir. Acosta even makes an appearance, playing himself now, in Cuba to put on a show about his life – a clever move by Laverty to include some electrifying performances.

The film’s great find is 10-year-old newcomer Edlison Manuel Olbera Núñez, who struts around as young Carlos with irrepressible energy. In a reverse of the Billy Elliott story, it’s his dad Pedro (Santiago Alfonso), who drags Carlos kicking and screaming to Havana’s state ballet school to get him off the streets – and gives him the nickname Yuli, a legendary warrior. The teachers instantly recognise this cocky kid’s natural talent. But Carlos is not convinced – he’d rather be playing football than flouncing about in tights. His commitment to ballet is semi-detached at best. Pedro is his biggest cheerleader and an overbearing bully, beating him with a leather belt for skipping classes.

The childhood scenes are so vibrant, it’s almost a shame when Keyvin Martinez (a dancer in Acosta’s company) picks up the role of Carlos in his late teens. Ballet is his ticket out of poverty, but his loneliness at being separated from his family is agonising, even as he notches up accolades – famously becoming the Royal Ballet’s first black Romeo.

Acosta’s own appearances here are lumbered with some clunky dialogue – though the three or four autobiographical dance sequences he choreographs (particularly one in which he performs the role of his father) are extraordinary. What’s perhaps surprising given the insider involvement from Acosta is the film’s insight and emotional generosity that extends even to overbearing Pedro. This isn’t one of those biopics that rearranges a life to hide the ugly awkward bits.

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