Vestron Pictures, 1987
Starring Jennifer Gray, Patrick Swayze, Cynthia Rhodes, and Jerry Orbach
Directed by Emile Ardolino
Music by various
We're staying in the 1980's for our first entry this week. As an 8-year-old in 1987, I fondly remember how big this movie was during late summer and early fall. Everyone talked about it, imitated the dance moves, joined dance classes, and dug out their old rock records from the early 60's. Is it still worthy of the acclaim, or should it be put in a corner? Let's head to a summer resort in New York's Catskills Mountains just as as Frances "Baby" Houseman (Gray) is arriving with her family and find out...
The Story: Baby's on vacation at the resort with Dr. Jake (Orbach) and Marjorie (Kelly Bishop) Houseman and her older sister Lisa (Jane Brucker). She's full of hope and desire to change the world and help people, but she's also bored with her traditional life. She gets a shot in the arm when she sees the handsome Johnny Castle (Swayze) dancing with his partner and good friend Penny (Rhodes) at the resort and is instantly intrigued. When she's recruited to help his cousin Billy (Neal Jones) bring watermelons to the staff's "dirty" dancing party, she runs into him and is instantly smitten, despite dancing awkwardly.
She has to learn about dancing in a hurry Baby discovers Penny's pregnant and can't do a big dance routine at another resort. If she and Johnny don't do that number, they'll lose their jobs. Baby agrees to take her place. In the midst of lessons and attempting lifts in the river, they fall for each other. Baby, however, is afraid of what her father will say when he finds out she's in love with a low-life who is badly regarded my many people at the resort, In the end, Baby discovers that the most important thing anyone can do is to stand up for not only your rights, but for the rights of others to dance in any way they choose.
The Song and Dance: Gray, Swayze, and the music are the things here. Swayze absolutely oozes sexuality as the dance instructor from the streets who's more of a gentleman at heart than many of the smarmy rich boys at the club, while Gray more than matches him as the sheltered teen who learns lessons in more than just dance. The music is an odd mix of classic early 60's rock and extremely late 80's rock, but it somehow works. Orbach also comes off well as Baby's father, who challenges his own prejudices when his beloved daughter falls for a guy from the wrong side of the tracks. The Catskills scenery is a serene and glowing contrast to the occasionally overwrought melodrama. The occasional burst from real-life early 60's DJ "Cousin Brucie" adds a bit of authenticity.
Favorite Number: The Contours' "Do You Love Me?" gives Baby her first glimpse into the world on the other side of the tracks at the staff shows off its slinky moves in the "dirty dancing" party. Many of the scenes of Johnny teaching Baby to dance are iconic today, including sequences done to the 60's romp "Hey Baby" and the 80's fast ballad "Hungry Eyes." "De Todo Un Poco" is the Latin-flavored instrumental tune that provides the backdrop for Johnny and Baby's big dance number at the other resort. Though Baby has a shaky start and isn't confident enough for lifts at that point, they do well enough for it to be a highlight. Johnny and Baby have more fun getting down and sexy with Mickey and Sylvia's playful ballad "Love Is Strange."
The two biggest numbers from this movies were massive blockbusters in their own right. Swayze's intense ballad "She's Like the Wind" underscores Johnny leaving after he's been fired over Baby. The heartfelt and passionate slow song perfectly suits the moment and is probably my favorite number from the film. The climatic "I've Had the Time of My Life" at the talent show is likely the most famous number, as Johnny and Baby consummate their relationship by showing off the number they'd practiced throughout the movie...including that lift...and get the entire resort to join in.
Trivia: The movie is based after screenwriter Eleanor Boardman's real-life experiences with a dance instructor at a Catskills resort in the 60's.
This was one of the first big-screen assignments for Kenny Ortega, who choreographed the dance sequences.
What I Don't Like: While I appreciate that they had the guts to tackle abortion in a movie largely intended for teenagers, that part of the plot comes off as overly earnest and melodramatic. The class prejudice story hasn't always dated that well, either. Not to mention, it sometimes feels like the movie doesn't know what time period it wants to be set in. The songs are good...but the 80's synth-pop sometimes mixes awkwardly with the 60's ballads and dance songs. The men's hair and clothing is pretty accurate for the time. Other than a few fluffy dresses, the women's hair and costumes are definitely more 80's, especially Gray's curly perm.
The Big Finale: Come for the fantastic dance numbers; stay for excellent performances that almost succeed in drowning out the goopy plot.
Home Media: The movie was the first million-seller on video, and its popularity continues into the streaming era. It's easily found on all formats; Amazon Prime currently has it for free with a subscription.