Dirty Dancing Review

1963. Frances Houseman, known to all as "Baby" (Jennifer Grey), is on holiday at Kellerman's holiday resort in the Catskills with her parents and older sister. Finding little of interest at the resort, she wanders off on her own. Stumbling on an all-night dance party in the staff quarters, Baby is mesmerised by the raunchy dancing on display, a world away from the "clean teen" music she's been used to. And then she meets the resort's dance instructor, Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze). Baby's life is about to change forever.

Dirty Dancing, an engaging romance/coming-of-age movie, was and is a big popular hit, and for a while was the highest-grossing independent release in the US. (It remains the biggest hit Vestron Pictures ever had; they are now defunct.) As a film, it's always been undervalued. I'm not claiming it as a neglected masterpiece, because it isn't – it certainly has its flaws, but it's a better film than it's often given credit for. Its strengths lie in a semi-autobiographical script by Eleanor Bergstein (who also co-produced and has a brief appearance on screen dancing with Patrick Swayze) and Jennifer Grey's performance. Back in 1987, on this film's first release, I predicted big things for her after this role and an eye-catching turn as Ferris's sister in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Sadly, they haven't come to pass, and her film roles over the last decade have been sporadic. She's in virtually every scene of Dirty Dancing, and it's largely due to her that the film is so engaging. The scene where she puts her own reputation at risk to clear Johnny's name (he's been accused of stealing a guest's wallet and he has no alibi) is the best in the film: you feel that a lot really is at stake for her. But she didn't become a star, and Swayze did. Such is life.

Swayze always has been a wooden actor, but in this film his limitations are put to good effect. He certainly looks great and can certainly dance, but it's a role that doesn't make too many demands on his acting ability. There are solid performances from the ever-reliable Jerry Orbach as Baby's father and Cynthia Rhodes as Johnny's dancing partner.

Dirty Dancing is not a particularly good-looking movie. The late Emil Ardolino and his cinematographer, Jeff Jur, give the film a flat, overlit televisual look, and at times it looks rather too much like a pop video. Ardolino (who went on to direct Three Men and a Little Lady and Sister Act before his death from AIDS) does know how to film a dance routine, though. The soundtrack is a mix of oldies (including The Ronettes' "Be My Baby" over the opening credits – Dirty Dancing would make a bizarre double-bill partner with Mean Streets) and new songs, including the Oscar-winning ballad "(I've Had) The Time of My Life" sung by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes.

There was talk of a sequel, taking Baby and Johnny further into the Sixties. Nowadays, if it were ever made, it would probably be a Swayze vehicle, with a different leading lady. Perhaps thankfully, it never happened.

This DVD has an anamorphic transfer in the ratio of 16:9. The intended ratio is 1.85:1, but I wouldn't lose too much sleep over the difference – as I say above, this is hardly the most visually distinguished of films as it is. (It was shot open-matte: I remember watching a full-frame TV screening which revealed lights at the bottom of the frame, not to mention Grey's underwear in her bed scenes.) Given the original's limitations, it isn't at all bad, though suffering from aliasing here and there.

The soundtrack is fairly basic, being standard mono except for the music. The surrounds echo the front speakers and the subwoofer is used to fill out the bass-lines in the songs. There are twenty chapter stops, which is adequate for a film of this length.

The main extra is a commentary by Eleanor Bergstein. It has its moments of interest, such as the autobiographical elements in the script and how but is more than a little gushing – it's one of those tracks which takes pains to tell you how wonderful everyone was. The remaining extras are the not-at-all-bad trailer, basic IMDB-derived filmographies (no biographies) for the four lead actors and Ardolino. Finally, you too can dirty dance: follow the steps (either for a man or a woman) with the aid of your remote.

Dirty Dancing is a very worthwhile movie, held together by an excellent lead performance. Columbia TriStar's DVD is serviceable but not stunning.

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