It’s 2021 and I just saw for the first time in my life Dirty Dancing, a 1987 cult movie directed by Emile Ardolino. Why haven’t I seen it before? Because I mistakenly thought it was a musical, and I usually stay away from those, and it’s not like romantic comedies are really my favorite genre. But since in the end I watch everything, here I am writing about this film that everyone except me has known for a long time.
1963. Baby (Jennifer Gray), her older sister (Jane Bruckner) and her parents (Jerry Orbach and Kelly Bishop) go to spend the summer in an upper middle-class family resort. There are lots of dancers and artists taking care of the entertainment, and they party hard all the time, having much more fun than the families who pay to be there. The main stars are Johnny (Patrick Swayze) and his dance partner Penny (Cynthia Rhodes). The former enjoys its popularity with women of all ages at the resort, and the latter… is out of action all summer for a badly performed illegal abortion. It’s up to Baby to replace her, and of course she falls in love with Johnny in the process.
What about Dirty Dancing? Personally, I found that the characters fit very well the United States of 1963, with their optimism derived from the economic boom and from not having yet officially and fully entered into a dark period marked by events such as, among others, the Vietnam War and the murders of JFK and Martin Luther King.
Everyone was cheerful and happy, and prejudice reigned supreme. Those same middle-class families who enjoyed the work of the artists hired for social activities, at the same time thought that the artists themselves were basically worthless and depraved (think of Biff in 1955 avoiding a confrontation with Marvin Berry’s band musicians who smoke drugs in Back to the Future, 1985). And, as mentioned, abortion was illegal, someone could be fired simply by accusing him of being a thief in front of everyone, and minors could have relationships with much older people no questions asked.
But leaving aside how awful the society of the time was, let’s talk about the good things in the movie. One is the character of Patrick Swayze who’s similar in some respects to that of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955): he doesn’t know what to do with his life, he’s impulsive, and he acts irrationally (at a certain point he also damages his own car), and yet, or perhaps because of that, he’s also very charismatic (that said, I’m aware of the qualitative difference between these two movies).
Then, the story between Baby and Johnny is believable, it develops well during the film and the two actors have a lot of chemistry between them. The rest of the plot, unfortunately, feels a bit forced, and many of its elements seem badly wedged into a story that doesn’t know how to develop anything beyond the relationship between the two protagonists and their hot dance sessions.
The result is that there are absurdly one-dimensional characters such as the son of the resort owner (Lonny Price), and many unbelievable situations like Baby’s father’s assumption that Johnny is responsible for Penny’s abortion when it would be very easy to check whether he has anything to do with it. Even Robbie Gould (Max Cantor), who’s ultimately central to the story in at least two occasions, is little more than an extra and it seems hardly credible that he managed to be in a relationship with the beautiful and talented Penny.
The thing I liked the least, however, is the song (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes. It’s definitely an eighties song and therefore completely anachronistic, and yet it’s used diegetically for the last dance of the two protagonists. Clearly everyone was aware of doing something stupid, there’s even a dialogue highlighting it when Jack Weston’s character says: “Do you have sheet music on this stuff?” But since this song has become immortal thanks to Dirty Dancing evidently the creators of the film did the right thing, at least from a commercial point of view.
I conclude by saying that I found Dirty Dancing better than I had imagined, but it still seemed to me a fairly mediocre film that achieved enormous success thanks to its music and the artistic skills of its two young protagonists (not as young as the characters who interpret!). I guess that many teenagers grew up dreaming of becoming like them. I would recommend watching it simply to be aware of what it really is, besides its cult status. Ciao!
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