“That was the summer of 1963” opens Dirty Dancing, a movie that set out to create a time capsule for the Kennedy administration and ended up inadvertently doing so for 1987. The inescapable hit that almost wasn’t, this cultural smash would take Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze, who were both already recognizable faces, and thrust them into international stardom. After an early version of the film failed to connect with test audiences, it was expected to be one of the year’s biggest flops. No one could have predicted that it would resonate with viewers on an almost spiritual level, so much so that thirty years later it is still a major component in our collective pop culture vocabulary.
American cinema of the 1980s made a habit of fetishizing the 1950s and 1960s. Dirty Dancing, while romanticizing aspects of the era, takes issue with the restrictive nature of the conservative values the country had outgrown by the time of its release. The movie doesn’t look back on its parents’ generation with rose-colored glasses the way something like Back to the Future had done just a couple of years before. It takes stabs at many of the cultural failings of the United States during this time period, particularly in regards to class struggle and gender politics.
While it would be misleading to call Dirty Dancing a musical, it is certainly propelled forward by its Inspired soundtrack choices. With a blend of vintage and contemporary tracks, it gave new life to songs that weren’t huge hits at the time of their initial release, such as Solomon Burke’s “Cry to Me” and Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love is Strange.” At the same time, it was generating massive success for modern tracks like Eric Carmen’s “Hungry Eyes” and, of course, Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes’s “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.” The album would go on to spend 18 weeks at #1 on the Billboard charts, becoming a multi-platinum seller and leading to the release of a second soundtrack, More Dirty Dancing, the following year.
There’s no real villain in Dirty Dancing; the main conflict stems from the class divide between the wealthy people who operate and frequent the resort and those who are working as dance instructors just so they can scrape by. Even greater than being opened up to the world of young love and erotic dancing, Baby’s chief transition in the movie is learning to confront her own privilege. With her youthful idealism, she had grand ambitions about changing the world, but she had never truly taken the time to understand those who were worse off than her. She never looks down on others, still it takes her nearly the entire movie to realize that her good intentions only go so far.
Teenagers – even today – connect with this movie because it is all about finding your own identity outside of your parents. For the duration of the film, Baby fights to be treated as an equal, both in the eyes of Johnny and in the eyes of her father. There is something so elusive about getting someone to see you for who you truly are, and she is only able to do so when pride and social standing are stripped away.
Dirty Dancing, undeniably shot through the female gaze, casts Patrick Swayze’s Johnny Castle as the male equivalent of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. His character could not be more of an embodiment of a woman’s fantasy, as a macho bad boy who is secretly sensitive and just wants to find love. Johnny is always a love interest, rather than fully realized character. In this way, the gender roles are reversed from what we are used to from Hollywood.
Best of all, Dirty Dancing is unapologetically confident in its own abilities. Director Emile Ardolino and screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein (who constructed a narrative that is decidedly Jewish) seem bent on crafting sequences and dialogue that is specifically designed to be memorable. And, better still, they did just that. Whether you saw it thirty years ago or yesterday, Dirty Dancing is a shot of pure energy that speaks to people of all backgrounds. The movie leaves you wanting more, which is probably why we were given a wildly unnecessary prequel and a godawful remake. Still, we have the original, a film that feels even more relevant today than ever.