Dirty Dancing, 1987.
Directed by Emile Ardolino.
Starring Patrick Swayze, Jennifer Grey, Jerry Orbach, Wayne Knight, Cynthia Rhodes, Kelly Bishop, Jack Weston, Jane Brucker, and Lonny Price.
In the summer of 1963, teenager Baby Houseman goes on a family holiday and falls in love with a rebellious dance teacher.
Nostalgia is a powerful thing, and when you’re nostalgic about a film that celebrates nostalgia you know you’re a) overly sentimental and b) getting old. Yes, we’re at that stage now when those classic movies we loved growing up in the 1980s are getting anniversary editions and this year sees, amongst others, Dirty Dancing getting dusted down and re-packaged in a special 30th anniversary collector’s edition Blu-ray.
It is very doubtful that anybody reading this will need a plot rundown but just in case you’re totally oblivious to the charms of romantic musicals it goes like this: it is the summer of 1963 and Baby Houseman (Jennifer Grey – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) is on holiday with her family at Kellerman’s Resort hotel. Whilst there she is reluctantly thrust together with owner Max Kellerman’s grandson Neil (Lonny Price – The Muppets Take Manhattan) and generally having a boring time. That is until she meets Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze – Road House/Ghost), the handsome dance instructor at the resort, and is introduced to the after-hours world of sexy dancing and partying that goes on in the staff quarters after the guests have gone to bed.
Naturally, the well-meaning and naïve Baby falls for the rugged Johnny but he sees her as nothing more than a little rich Daddy’s girl. However, things change when Johnny’s dance partner Penny (Cynthia Rhodes – Flashdance) has an illegal abortion that goes wrong and Baby steps in to fill Cynthia’s shoes for a show, which means that Johnny has to give her dance lessons, despite the fact that Baby’s doctor father has forbade her to mix in Johnny’s circle of friends. Will Baby learn to become a dancer? Will Baby and Johnny get it together? Will Baby’s father learn the truth about Penny’s abortion? Would somebody please slap Neil Kellerman…?
You already know even if you haven’t seen the film before and that is really the charm of Dirty Dancing because once you put those critical glasses on and look more closely at the elements that make up the movie you’ll soon discover that it is a film that succeeds in evoking a feeling and an emotion but isn’t actually that outstanding on a technical level, getting away with things that other – i.e. better – movies would get a pasting for. For one thing, although Patrick Swayze oozes sexual chemistry with Jennifer Grey and dances like a firework, his actual acting performance is pretty bad, with even the much-used classic “Nobody puts Baby in the corner” line sounding remarkably flat when you consider that in the scene he just strides into the room and says it with no real context or sense of anticipation. His accent also seems to change throughout the film, sometimes having a slightly southern drawl and other times just sounding too emotionless to carry off the character with anything other than clichéd dialogue and the fact he wears a black leather jacket to remind us of his rebellious nature.
And this film is clichéd to the max, which most romantic movies are so – like previously stated – it does get away with it, but thankfully Jennifer Grey provides a much-needed spark as Baby, a character that feels pretty stock if you were to write her qualities down on a piece of paper but Grey makes her likeable, sympathetic and, at certain points, a little rebellious (but for the right reasons) so she at least is deserving of our attention and the final dance scene – cheese-fest that it is – is totally hers and well-deserved.
But for all of the romance and music there is a key theme that runs through Dirty Dancing that often gets missed, and that is the theme of change, and change that involves the loss of innocence, represented by Baby but also referring to America as a country. Baby mentions in her opening narration that the summer of 1963 was before the Kennedy assassination and before The Beatles came to America, and Max Kellerman also comments near the end of the film that it feels like the old times are ‘slipping away’, and in that respect the film serves as a bridge between the ‘safe’ idealism of the 1950s and the oncoming transgressiveness of the 1960s. Obviously we can look at the movie with hindsight and reflect on the social climate of the period as one of turmoil for the US – indeed, the socially-conscious Baby refers to impending troubles in Vietnam a couple of times – and thanks to the late-summer setting and the sentimental nature of the score that idea of the ending of one season and the beginning of another is wonderfully realised.
Despite its flaws Dirty Dancing is still a triumph of feelgood movie-making; the chemistry between Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze still sizzles off the screen, the soundtrack – both the original songs and the classics – pushes the nostalgia buttons and works with the dance moves to make songs that you may have heard on the radio a little more exciting (although Patrick Swayze’s turgid ‘She’s Like the Wind’ is still painful on the ears), and everybody likes to feel like a winner at the end of a movie, right? Of course they do, and given that movies nowadays – even the romantic ones – seem to come with some sort of edge to them like not everything is going to be okay in the end, that alone makes it kind of refreshing to sit through. Naturally, most of the audiences who love this movie probably already own it but this collector’s edition comes with a few extra goodies that haven’t been seen before, the most poignant being an interview with Patrick Swayze from 2006 where he talks about his life and especially the making of this film and how it propelled his career. Also exclusive to this release is the Happy 30th Dirty Dancing featurette, which contains interviews with cast and crew from the original film, the stage musical and the upcoming TV movie, and an interview with writer Eleanor Bergstein, plus Kellerman’s Resort postcards, brochure and site map. The special features from previous releases have also been transferred over so you also get the deleted scenes, audio commentaries and music videos that your old DVD versions contain.
When it originally came out in 1987 Dirty Dancing played on nostalgia for the 1950s and ‘60s, and viewing it today the nostalgia is actually stronger for 1987 than it is for the era the film was set in. Perhaps that has something to do with this writer’s own age and the fact that Patrick Swayze is no longer with us but overall Dirty Dancing ticks all the boxes for being a crowd-pleaser and 100 minutes of total joy. Just don’t examine it too closely…
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★