Friday, July 13, 2018

TV’s Dirty Dancing: Putting Baby in a Corner

No one pretends that the original Dirty Dancing is a masterpiece. Its  story beats are obvious; some of its casting doesn’t work (e.g. an older sister who resembles 17-year-old Baby not at all) and there’s woefully little discussion of the pitfalls of teen sex. But the 1987 film also has some unmistakable assets: a great score, an ending that appeals to the romantic in all of us, and (especially) a dance duo who make our hearts go pitter-pat. As bad-boy dance instructor Johnny Castle, Patrick Swayze is thrillingly sexy, while still managing to convince us of his tender side. Lithe Jennifer Grey (age 27), is credible as a sheltered teen learning how to spread her wings. When, late in the film, she leaps into Swayze’s arms for a triumphant “angel lift,” the moment is sheer terpsichorean perfection. Vicariously we too have the time of our lives, watching these born dancers go through their paces. Truly, they make ME feel like dancing.

Which is why I was curious to see the 2017 TV remake. The original, a modestly budgeted flick from Vestron that was expected to go pretty much unnoticed, made such an impact on young people everywhere that it wasn’t too surprising to see it re-tooled as a TV movie. This, after all, is an era in which the TV versions of several Broadway musical hits (The Sound of Music, The Wiz, Grease) have attracted big audiences. Those shows were all broadcast live, enjoying the energy as well as the challenge of in-the-moment performance. Dirty Dancing was not filmed in the same throw-caution-to-the-winds way. In order to replicate the atmosphere of Kellerman’s, the fictionalized Catskill resort of the movies, it was filmed on location, amid the lakes and piney woods of North Carolina. Still, this new Dirty Dancing is intended to come off as a genuine musical entertainment, which has helped contribute to one of the odder aspects of the storytelling.

The makers of this re-make brag about how they’ve improved upon the original by fleshing out such featured characters as Baby’s sister, mother, father, and the hot-to-trot divorcee who complicates life for Johnny. This turns out to mean that each of them gets a spotlighted musical number. You see, Baby’s mom (Debra Messing) is feeling neglected by her workaholic spouse, so she threatens divorce . . . but when she croons “The Way You Look Tonight” in front of a rapt Kellerman’s audience, her husband (Bruce Greenwood) realizes how much he loves her. Which leads, in turn, to him seated at the piano in the hotel’s rehearsal hall, playing and singing the very same tune. And Baby’s sister (Sarah Hyland of Modern Family) ventures a ukulele duet with the camp’s African-American piano player, Because the story is still set in 1963, the filmmakers are clearly trying to convey a brave social message.

My biggest problem, though, is with this film’s Baby, played by Abigail Breslin. She’s an appealing actress, whom I fondly remember from Little Miss Sunshine, but (alas) a dancer she is not. With her chunky, busty figure and physical awkwardness, she is convincing as the Ugly Duckling Baby of the early scenes. But her transformation into a skillful dance partner (as well as sexual partner) for Johnny is not to be believed for a moment. When they performed the famous “Angel Lift,” I was relieved that poor Colt Prattes, playing Johnny, remained upright. See below to compare the two versions.

One key plot point in Dirty Dancing remains an illegal abortion that comes close to ending in tragedy. It’s alarming, frankly, that in 2018 this seems like Dirty Dancing’s most timely detail.

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