How I intend to conclude my wedding reception, with strict instructions that my Uncle Richard is sat where he can’t take any up skirts
Last week I saw Dirty Dancing on stage, and the week before that I saw the film’s famous routine in the Strictly Come Dancing Live show, because I can outfox any marketing demographics tool you try to apply to a 30-something British cat spinster. Another pink wine would be lovely, thanks. What? Uhm…large.
It made me wonder afresh at Dirty Dancing’s amazing cultural endurance. This might sound weird but I feel an odd combination of ongoing surprise and personal pride in its thunderous success. No-one was supposed to remember the naff low-budget movie full of unknowns that my 11-year-old peer group was obsessed with in 1987. It was very much a word of mouth hit at Springfield Primary, only nearly everyone had second-hand information. This was clearly the best film ever made, only trouble was, it carried a 15 certificate.
My friend Teresa Clarke had somehow slipped past Milton Keynes cineplex staff, and thus attained the mystical powers of the great Yahweh. Each break time we’d gather to hear more tales of this shudderingly magnificent theatrical epic. Thanks to her, we were word perfect and knew every twist in the story, we just needed to see the damn thing.
When I finally got my hands on that contraband brick-like VHS cassette, there’s no record of how many times I watched it during the rental period, but there’s no record of me getting any sleep, either.
I had Hungry Eyes, hahaha!
‘Perhaps time to turn that telly off, have a wash and get some fresh air, Mhairi?’
The deal: in 1963, principled, gauche young Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman (Jennifer Grey) goes on a summer break with her family, falls for bad boy dance instructor, Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze). The dancing does not qualify as dirty unless due to a Doctor Who-ish tear in the temporal fabric, you are viewing it through a Victorian mourning veil in 1909.
Given its popularity on the squawkerama hen night circuit, you might justifiably ask: ‘Isn’t it yet another example of the hallowed tradition of the triumph of crap?’ Assuredly, unironically, no. OK, aspects of it are crap.
Some of the so-bad-it’s-memorable dialogue is so clumsy it must’ve been typed wearing boxing gloves. Johnny’s first line – ‘You keep putting pickle on everybody’s plate, college boy, and leave the hard stuff to me’ – is made even more lol-some when you remember he’s getting his James Dean on over workplace politics at the Catskills’ equivalent of Butlins. The ‘hard stuff’ is cha-cha lessons with benefits for Dorien from Birds of a Feather.
When he growls: ‘I know these people, Baby, they’re rich and they’re MEAN’ you think, shit me son, you’re not up against the Illuminati, you’re in Hi-De-Hi.
The plot would fall apart if Baby didn’t display an uncharacteristic and inexplicable unwillingness to say to her Dad: ‘Hey, in the spirit of openness between us that has been well established, it was oily Robbie the woman-hater waiter who got Penny preggo. He’s an Ayn Rand fan, if you need convincing. I wouldn’t let my sister date him if I were you. By the way, this is Johnny.’
The mostly-superb 1960s soundtrack has sudden absent-minded veers into ‘80s power cheese. There’s the never-wise decision to allow the male lead to co-write and croon a ballad, opening with the immortal couplet: ‘She’s like the wind / through my tree.’ Fortunately we’re pretty interested in Johnny’s tree by this point.
‘Vegas magician’ 80s styling – RIP my boner
However, it gets the fundamentals so gloriously right.
When wide-eyed Baby, clad in a cardigan and carrying the notorious watermelon, leaves the staid main resort and discovers the steamy netherverse of the professionally pelvic Sex People, doing boozing and carousing to rowdy tunes, it perfectly encapsulates adolescence, that heady mixture of fascination and terror with a world you long to join. The club that would never let someone as uncool as you be a member.
Jennifer Grey is a properly relatable heroine – from her bushel of hair and beaky nose (sadly later cosmetically altered, having an anonymising effect she described as putting herself in witness protection) to the good girl plimsolls, this is no glamourpuss actress condescending to geek down for a role. She is one of us.
While Patrick Swayze’s performance might not hint at many hours spent studying Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares, this critic noted he has the physicality of a young Harrison Ford.
Virginal Baby learning dancing as a metaphor for other stuff works so beautifully. She, and we, spend most of the running time imagining what a spectacular nobsman Johnny Castle must be. Let’s face it, he’s already publicly mastering what’s generally considered a ladies’ area.
But delightfully, in the genuinely hot rumping scene to Solomon Burke’s Cry To Me, she seduces him. With hindsight, and in light of Twilight, the feisty idealist and hoofer stud ass tappin’ Baby is a pretty great role model.
And of course, it has THAT finale. When ex-employee Johnny turns up and says FUCK YOU PONTINS, I’m going to work for FREE and thoroughly entertain the PATRONS, how do you like it up you, eh? And they’re all aw hell no, how do we stop this guy, is it even possible to control the sound system at your own venue?
Unfairly dismiss THIS: Johnny takes Kellermans to a tribunal of groove where his groin makes the closing submissions
Who hasn’t fantasised about turning up at the company that sacked them and staging a thrilling dance performance, one where your choreography is so intoxicating that the security guards sent to escort you from the premises find themselves jiving puppet slaves to your funky rhythm?
(Editor’s note: only my Dad might be immune. He was once overheard saying to the radio: ‘I will NOT let the beat control me, thank you very much.’)
Look at Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey’s joyful expressions in that sequence and you probably have the secret of Dirty Dancing making endless millions: they honestly look like they’re having a ball.
Unusually for such a famous romance, there’s no conventional sense of a Happy Ever After, either. Even the Time Of My Life song tips the wink that this is simply one heck of a holiday fling, before Baby joins the Peace Corps. (Really).
When Patrick Swayze died tragically young in 2009, Jennifer Grey said she’d never forget being in his arms. Which made me sigh with sadness, and envy. Never having seen Dirty Dancing didn’t stop me from loving it, and never having….danced with Johnny Castle doesn’t stop me from always missing it.
‘Why are you in your bra?’ ….’Oh didn’t you…I must’ve misheard’