Dirty Dancing was also on a lot of people's minds last year when star Patrick Swayze lost his agonizingly long, very public but ultimately dignified battle against pancreatic cancer. In fact tragic, premature death so stalks the cast and crew of Dirty Dancing that its latest home video incarnation even has its own "In Memoriam" and tributes section.
It turns out that the movie is pretty much what I had always imagined it would be all these years - pleasant if predictable and overflowing with musical melodrama clichés. However, it has its share of surprises and a certain quirkiness that make it a bit more interesting than I had expected.
The film is set in the summer of 1963, a few months before the assassination of President Kennedy, at a (fictitious) Catskills resort hotel, Kellerman's. Frances "Baby" Houseman (Jennifer Grey) arrives with her family: her wealthy physician father, Jake (Jerry Orbach), mother Marjorie (Kelly Bishop), and sister Lisa (Jane Brucker). The family is warmly greeted by owner Max Kellerman (Jack Weston) himself; Max credits Jake with saving his life.
Clearly, Kellerman's is a Jewish resort though the film dances around this point. Never do even the older guests speak Yiddish, for instance, and religious and cultural iconography is nowhere to be found - except for a single box of Matzos and a few containers in the kitchen with Hebrew labels. That's it. However, the film's producers were probably being shrewd in this regard: Jewish audiences picked up on everything while more general, gentile audiences were by all odds oblivious to the singularly Jewish setting.
In any case, economic class rather than religion sharply divide the guests and certain hotel employees. The waiters and other service providers are carefully selected law and medical students from Harvard and Yale working summer jobs and encouraged, to a point, to mingle with the guests as potential (and suitably Jewish) matches for the various families' daughters. Conversely, the entertainment staff consists of working class stiffs, black musicians and gentile dance instructors, physically desirable but also regarded by some as inferior. A major subplot concerns instructor Johnny Castle's (Swayze) dance partner, Penny (Cynthia Rhodes), who becomes pregnant by a womanizing medical student-waiter, Robbie (Max Cantor). An avid follower of Ayn Rand (he keeps a copy of The Fountainhead in his back pocket) Robbie flatly refuses to take responsibility and dismisses Penny's pleas to help her get a (then illegal) abortion.
Simultaneously, Baby is drawn into Johnny's world though he and Penny initially distrust and mock her until she comes to Penny's rescue, borrowing the money for the abortion from her trusting father - it's hard to imagine this script being made in today's super-sensitive climate - then later filling in for Penny at a performance at a nearby hotel. During the week or so she trains, dancing with Johnny, the two begin to fall in love.
Dirty Dancing's semi-autobiographical screenplay by Eleanor Bergstein has enough authentic moments to compensate for its many clichés and at times alarmingly anachronistic look. The relationship between Baby and her father is as original as Baby's romance is familiar. Daddy's a Kennedy Democrat, a supporter of racial integration and his daughter's ambition to join the Peace Corps, but his liberal leanings are tested when she falls for Bad Boy Johnny. This conflict unfortunately hinges on a dumb contrivance - he mistakenly thinks Johnny, not Robbie, got Penny pregnant, and no one bothers to tell him otherwise. Still, the obvious love between father and daughter, his trust in her that's briefly broken, etc., works quite well thanks in no small way to Orbach's heartfelt performance.
And despite downplaying the Jewish aspect and the fact that Kellerman's is doubled by hotels in Virginia (primarily) and North Carolina, Dirty Dancing conveys the atmosphere and nostalgia for the Catskills in its heyday. Also, Jack Weston's character is sadly aware of its imminent collapse as a summer vacation destination, and is engagingly elegiac.
Swayze and Grey are fine in the leading roles. With his lean, working-class features and Texas drawl, Swayze is well cast and dances wonderfully, while Grey's plainness (she's pleasant but hardly glamorous) is actually an asset - no doubt part of the film's appeal has been that ordinary women can relate to Baby's looks and experience the story vicariously through her character. Rather notoriously, soon after the film Grey decided to get a nose job and, almost unrecognizable, her career abruptly stalled.
The Dirty Dancing itself is choreographed in a very '80s manner. Several admittedly popular new songs ("I've Had the Time of My Life") incongruously mingle with authentic early-'60s tunes. Moreover, the clothes and hairstyles are inconsistent, more often than not looking more mid-1980s rather than early-1960s. This probably worked okay to some degree back in 1987 but, seen today, the jumble of fashions and music is a distraction.
Video & Audio
Though a rather ordinary 1.85:1 release, Lionsgate's Blu-ray of Dirty Dancing - they inherited the film from the long-defunct Vestron - is pretty close to flawless. The 1080p transfer isn't exactly the kind of film you'd use to demonstrate your home theater system, but it gets the job done, with a sharp image and accurate colors. The region "A" encoded disc includes two audio options: a 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix and one in 5.1 Dolby Digital EX. Not surprisingly, the music benefits most. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are included.
Released innumerable times on VHS, laserdisc, and at least four times previously on DVD - in 2001, 2003, 2005, and 2007 - this Blu-ray edition offers scads of old and new supplements. Exclusive to the Blu-ray version is Live in Concert, a dated but lively concert video of dance and music from the film that seems to date back to about 1988; "Dancing to the Music," a featurette about the creation of new songs and licensing of the older ones for the movie; and Bergstein's screenplay.
Also apparently new is a moving tribute to Swayze, featuring on-camera interviews with his brother and widow. It's part of a larger "In Memoriam" featurette that includes actor/journalist Cantor, who died of a heroin overdose while researching its addiction, but which focuses on Swayze, Orbach (who died of prostate cancer at 68), and director Emile Ardolino, who died of AIDS at 50.
Other features include two commentary tracks, one with Bergstein and the other with Kenny Ortega, Miranda Garrison, Jeff Jur, Hilary Rosenfeld, and David Chapman; "Kellerman's: Reliving the Locations of the Film"; "Dirty Dancing: The Phenomenon"; a fan reel, a trailer (in high definition; most everything else is standard-def); an extensive photo gallery; vintage featurettes and more recent on-camera interviews (including Grey, otherwise conspicuously absent); music videos, multi-angle looks at the dance sequences, screen tests, and deleted scenes.
If that weren't enough, also included is a standard-definition digital copy of the film that works with iTunes, Mac and PC (and accompanied by clear written instructions), a full-color book (with Blu-ray-sized dimensions), and a $50 off coupon for Mountain Lake Hotel, the main location used during filming.
While the viewing experience didn't exactly convert this reviewer, parts of Dirty Dancing impressed me and overall I found it a pleasant if not earth-shattering experience. The transfer is excellent and this "Limited Keepsake Edition" positively overflows with fan-friendly supplements. Highly Recommended.