Dirty Dancing (1987)

Returning to the big screen on January 29th and February 1st for a 30th anniversary presentation from Fathom Events and Lionsgate.

“Dirty Dancing” represents a lot of what made eighties cinema so great. There’s the obsession with the sixties, Jennifer Grey, Patrick Swayze, a pretty brilliant soundtrack, and of course a story about the guy from the wrong side of the tracks and the upper class girl above him in certain respects. Sure, “Dirty Dancing” can be silly, but it’s silly in a good way, and it’s bold in its approaching abortion as a key story element that sets the narrative in to motion. “Dirty Dancing” is one of the best movies about the love of dance and music ever made, and while it’s definitely associated with the chick flick label, it’s a movie that just about anyone can enjoy. And how can you not love “(I Had) The Time of My Life”?

Patrick Swayze is at his best here as Johnny, a professional dancer who performs at an upper crest hotel in the Catskills. Jennifer Grey plays “Baby” Houseman, the daughter of a very wealthy family who groans at the monotony of being among boring wealthy people. When a friend of hers introduces her to the underground scene of the hotel where most of the poorer staff members indulge in dance parties and whatnot, Baby finds herself attracted to head dance instructor Johnny. Of course Swayze represents everything that “Baby” doesn’t, and he does a damn good job here portraying someone who isn’t just enticing for “Baby,” but is also a brilliant dancer. After Johnny’s dance partner and best friend is impregnated and forced to get an abortion, Baby’s doctor father begrudgingly performs the procedure and bans Baby from ever seeing Johnny again.

With the final show of the season coming, Baby convinces Johnny to let her stand in for her partner and secretly begins to meet him. From there, the two form an uneasy relationship that gradually transforms in to a passionate affair. Grey and Swayze are pitch perfect in their roles, and offer up a unique dynamic that makes “Dirty Dancing” absolutely entertaining. Grey has an adorable geekiness to her that makes her scenes with Johnny raucous and compelling. This is especially true when Baby commits to learning how to dance, and keep up with Johnny. “Dirty Dancing” tries very hard to convey commentary about social structure, and class, and doesn’t quite succeed in its attempted importance. But as a romantic drama about two vastly different people and their summer fling, it works waves.

Director Emile Ardolino undercuts the kind of cookie cutter premise with a lot of wonderful music from the sixties, and even some memorable tracks celebrated for their camp. Swayze’s “She’s Like the Wind” is an odd addition to the soundtrack, but you can’t ignore how Swayze delivers such a passionate ballad. There are also some great songs by the Ronettes and the Five Satins, as well as Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes, and Eric Carmen whose song “Hungry Eyes” is arguably the defining track of the film. “Dirty Dancing” has the lightning in a bottle timelessness that works as a time capsule of the decade, and a very entertaining and beautifully composed film that packs in drama, comedy, and an iconic finale that’s still quite riveting.

  • Thank you Felix for appreciating the classic greatness of this movie with a glowing and positive review.
    We raised 4 kids and were able to rent this movie when it came out as a video. Even our 2 sons could enjoy it for the fun and dirty dancing choreography, and it was definitely a new era for dancing in movies. Our daughter would enjoy replaying “nobody puts baby in the corner”just for a lark. And the the moral of the story comes through beautifully, despite what the heavily jaded critics say.
    Also, tonight a small detail emerged – movie aficionados might even look up the writings of Ayn Rand whose book The Fountainhead was given as inspiration for the comment “some folks count, and some folks don’t count”.
    Just a quick mention here: Baby’s father only comes in after the procedure with needed advice and pain medication.
    I love your concluding thoughts … that this movie has the “lightning in a bottle timelessness that works as a time capsule of the decade” … “with an iconic finale that’s still quite riveting”.

    • FlixtheCat

      You’re very kind.

      I was born in 1983 so by the time this movie was in theaters it was all about “Dirty Dancing.” My aunt had the record soundtrack and played it five times a day. We even played it at family parties right in to 1991. I love this movie, despite the nostalgia behind it. That finale is so much fun.