Wednesday 4 June 2014

Movie Review: Dirty Dancing (1987)

A romantic musical about young love and the transition to adulthood at a vacation resort in 1963, Dirty Dancing catches lightning in a bottle. The music, dancing, romance and social class tension subtext come together in a scorching package.

It's the summer of 1963, and teenager Frances "Baby" Houseman (Jennifer Grey) joins her father Dr. Jake Houseman (Jerry Orbach), mother Marjorie (Kelly Bishop) and older sister Lisa (Jane Brucker) at a family vacation resort in the Catskill Mountains. Baby is bored by the programmed activities for the wealthy guests, and soon sets her eyes on the dangerously hunky Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze), the lead dancer in the working-class troupe hired to provide dancing lessons and entertainment.

In their own quarters, off limits to the guests, Castle and his dance friends including Penny (Cynthia Rhodes) hold sweaty parties centred on rock and roll music and sexy dance moves. As a romance heats up between Baby and Johnny, he teaches her how to dance. Penny finds herself in abortion trouble, Baby calls on her Dad's medical skills to help, and Johnny is accused of causing trouble just because he looks like a likely troublemaker. As the vacation draws to a close, Baby and Johnny face an uncertain ending to a tumultuous summer.

Filmed with a cast of mostly unknowns on a tiny budget by Vestron, an unknown video distribution company, and filled with unplanned scenes that could have been out-takes but were instead turned into movie magic, Dirty Dancing is the little film that came from nowhere to cause a cultural sensation. Unashamedly celebrating the sexual rock 'n' roll revolution just about to sweep the 1960s, and mixing in some 1980s hairstyles, outfits and dance moves with Shakespearean impossible love ingredients, the film is a classic feel good coming of age romance.

Director Emile Ardolino skips past some rudimentary dialogue and contrived plot elements, and just immerses the film in the dreamy state of adolescence softly breaking free from childhood and making the inevitable transition into the adult world. This is Baby's summer, when she will apply the lessons of her father in unexpected ways, while charting her own path and exploring previously forbidden fruit. And Johnny Castle provides the perfect gateway into the new world, the boy from the wrong side of the tracks, a legend among his peers but certain that he will never be accepted in better circles.

Despite a reportedly rocky off-screen relationship, Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey positively sizzle on the screen. Their romance is sinewy, smouldering and sexy, born on the dance floor, nurtured through dance lessons, and reaching an outstanding pinnacle at the very end of the film. Dirty Dancing's final scene is a sizzling, goosebump-inducing climax, set to the immortal (I've Had) The Time of My Life, Johnny finally taking charge of his life, freeing his girl from a corner, and showing the world how it's done. The film launched Swayze into superstardom, but Grey unfortunately could not capitalize on the opportunity and faded into obscurity, not helped by the ill-advised decision to alter her distinctive nose.

Jerry Orbach as Baby's father and Cynthia Rhodes as the other lead dancer in Johnny's company provide able support. Orbach gives Dr. Houseman the gentle authority to lament his daughter's transition into womanhood, while Rhodes' energetic dancing contributes an additional spark.

The film's best selling soundtrack album revived interest in early 1960s rock 'n' roll hits, including Be My Baby (The Ronettes), Big Girls Don't Cry (Franki Valli and the Four Seasons), Do You Love Me (The Contours) and Love Man (Otis Redding). In addition to The Time Of My Life, a couple of other modern songs helped to propel the soundtrack's popularity: Eric Camden's Hungry Eyes, and Swayze himself singing She's Like The Wind, the former accompanying the film's montage sequence featuring Johnny teaching Baby how to dance. It is a textbook example of how to pull off a stellar montage sequence with humour and clever editing while celebrating unguarded moments. Johnny repeatedly and unintentionally tickling Baby (outtakes that proved to be must-keeps) and Penny helping with Baby's posture are exceptional highlights.

Dirty Dancing burns up the dance floor with a combustible mix of honest emotion, sweat and body heat.

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