Should I Watch..? Dirty Dancing
What's the big deal?
Dirty Dancing is a dramatic romance film released in 1987 and is loosely based around the childhood of the film's writer, Eleanor Bergstein. A low-budget film from a fledging studio, expectations were low for the film which cast then-relative unknowns Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey as a dance instructor and his student who fall in love back in the summer of 1963. Despite this, the film became a huge success with global earnings in excess of $214 million and it was equally successful on the burgeoning home video market - it was the first film to sell more than a million copies. The soundtrack also went on to earn Oscar and Grammy awards while a prequel film was released in 2004. It has also transferred to the stage and become just as successful. The film would go on to become one of the defining pictures of the Eighties and many of its scenes and dialogue has since passed into popular culture.
What's it about?
Seventeen-year-old Francis "Baby" Houseman is holidaying with her family at Kellerman's, a resort in the Catskill Mountains in the summer of 1963. Planning to enter the Peace Corps after graduation, Baby is immediately attracted to the resort's dance instructor Johnny Castle and she quickly finds herself drawn into his world of back-stage staff parties and "dirty" dancing. When Johnny's dance partner Penny announces that she's pregnant with womanising waiter Robbie's child, Baby asks her father Jake for money to pay for an abortion.
While Penny recovers, Johnny has no choice but to perform his routines with the untrained Baby. As their dance lessons become more focused, the pair find themselves drawn to each other. Can they stay focused enough to become professional dance partners or will their blossoming romance threaten to derail not just Johnny's career at Kellerman's but also Baby's relationship with her over-protective father?
Francis "Baby" Houseman
Dr Jake Houseman
Release Date (UK)
16th October, 1987
Drama, Music, Romance
Best Original Song
What's to like?
By now, I suspect that many of the film's fans will be calling for my head on a spike over the three-star rating so allow me to clarify. This is a damn fine movie which gets a lot of things right, starting with the spot-on casting of Grey and Swayze. Their chemistry makes Dirty Dancing stand out from numerous other romantic films by making the characters' relationship feel real. The characters evolve and change from scene to scene as real people should and even the comedic scenes between them, such as the famous tickling scene during dance practise, feels organic.
The period setting allows the film to have an outstanding soundtrack with timeless hits from the early Sixties alongside more contemporary efforts. And the dancing scenes are some of the best choreographed and performed since the golden age of the Hollywood musical. Swayze especially looks stellar on the dancefloor, like a more macho Gene Kelly dressed like a bad-boy biker. The group numbers are also first-class and together with that soundtrack, helps to create a vibe of pure excitement and romance that easily sweeps you up. It's infectious, that's what it is.
- Despite being set in summer, the film at the lake was shot in October with temperatures dropping to just above freezing. That's why the characters aren't shown close-up - their lips had turned blue. Grey later admitted that she wouldn't have dived into the water if she wasn't "young and hungry".
- The Patrick Swayze song She's Like The Wind was co-written by Swayze (who also sang the song) and Stacey Widelitz but was originally intended to appear in an earlier movie, Grandview, USA (1). It was originally about Jamie Lee Curtis' character but was ultimately dropped.
- The relationship between Grey and Swayze varied during filming. They had trouble getting along on the set of Red Dawn (2) and often fought before filming their scenes. To get them back on track, the two were made to watch their initial screen-test were they had fantastic chemistry. They quickly recovered their energy and enthusiasm.
What's not to like?
Where Dirty Dancing loses points is with its general narrative. The abortion sub-plot is quickly lost amid the raucous dancing and flirtatious soundtrack and worse, it's replaced by the pretty dull tale of the misunderstood bad-boy and the wholesome girl falling for each other. After the initial set-up, it becomes terribly predictable to the point of becoming cliché. The ending is never in doubt and while the film's feel-good factor is delivered with an almighty dance scene, it doesn't adequately conclude the story. What happened to Penny? Did Johnny get his job back? How were people in the Sixties dancing and singing along with Eighties stars Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes?
I realise that I'm being picky here, maybe even unduly harsh. I also understand that I am not the film's target audience - an overweight, middle-aged Englishman is unlikely to be reminded of halcyon days holidaying in the Catskills and dancing with hunky rebels. I just wish the film wasn't so damn predictable or cheesy. There is a genuinely romantic feel to the film but the plot squanders it, unsure of what exactly to do with it. It actually reminded me a lot of Grease (3) with its memorable songs and syrupy romance eclipsing the somewhat murky tale of teenage angst the film is trying to tell in the background. None of this stops Dirty Dancing from being fun, however, and this timeless tale can be enjoyed by pretty much anyone with a sense of rhythm.
Should I watch it?
Despite its faults, this is one of the best musical films since Saturday Night Fever (4). Dirty Dancing might be as old as the hills with its story but the sheer energy of the picture and furious dance scenes, coupled with one of the best soundtracks of all time, means that you are unlikely to leave feeling dissatisfied. Swayze cemented his reputation as one of Hollywood's most enduring romantic leads and the film remains a fun frolic through some great tunes and impossibly flexible moves.
Great For: love-struck women, Swayze's career, music lovers
Not So Great For: first dances, chiropractors
What else should I watch?
With the decline of the traditional Hollywood musical in the Sixties, movies began to adopt a more contemporary approach while still having plenty of songs and dance numbers to entertain. Producers looked to use more pop music in the hopes of selling soundtracks and the first film that arguably got the blend right was Saturday Night Fever, a film which focuses almost exclusively on the disco phenomenon of the mid Seventies. Grease also became hugely successful but not every effort met with as much acclaim. Flops like Xanadu (5) and the Village People's Can't Stop The Music (6) were so bad, they directly inspired the creation of the Razzie Award.
Other Eighties musicals worth checking out, especially for any frustrated dancers out there, include Flashdance (7) and the Kevin Bacon-helmed Footloose (8). Both films also have great soundtracks (though not as good as this one) and all three possibly owe a huge debt to the unforgettable Fame (9). While none of these films were a massive hit with critics, all proved successful at the box office and remain popular all these years later.
© 2017 Benjamin Cox