One of a handful of crowd pleasing flicks that are seemingly impervious to criticism, 'Dirty Dancing' may well go down in film history as the little movie that could. Somehow this unassuming little story about a young girl's coming-of-age in the catskills managed to not only become the sleeper smash of 1987, but it gave birth to a veritable cottage industry -- two soundtrack albums, a live touring production, an eventual TV spin-off series, and even annual 'Dirty Dancing' fan conventions.
Now here we are, twenty years later, and 'Dirty Dancing' continues to enjoy a cult devotion that -- if not as intense as a 'Star Wars' or 'Rocky Horror' -- is still rabid enough to inspire yet another video release, this time a '20th Anniversary Edition,' which Lionsgate is releasing concurrently on both standard DVD and Blu-ray. And while those just stumbling upon the film today without being wrapped up in the warm glow of nostalgia may end up wondering what all the fuss was about, taken on its own terms, 'Dirty Dancing' is still an immensely likable (if terribly cliched) tale of first love.
Jennifer Grey won the breakout role of a lifetime as Frances "Baby" Houseman, a young ingenue vacationing with her dear papa Dr. Jake Houseman (Jerry Orbach) and family at the upper-class Kellerman's lodge in the Catskills. On verge of her eighteenth birthday, Baby is still idealistic, flush with longings of romantic love but frustrated by her family's continued attempts to fix her up with all manner of shallow, snooty rich boys. Those feelings come to a head after she stumbles upon on a late-night "dirty dancing" session held in secret by the lodge's staff, and first spies lead dancer Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze). Faster than you can hum "She's Like the Wind," Baby falls head over heels for the "rebellious" foot man -- much to the dismay of dear old dad.
No more plot synopsis is required, because (even if we haven't already seen the film a million times) we know where this story is going the minute Baby meets Johnny. In this case however, familiarity only seems to breed endearment. In fact, what's sweet about 'Dirty Dancing' is that it never aspires to be more than its simple story, yet insists on telling its tale well. Even twenty years later, the film still feel fresh because it was made with a knowing lack of cynicism, treating Baby's innocence sincerely. We truly like all of these characters, and 'Dirty Dancing' facilitates an instant empathy with the audience. The film also argues against classism, asking us to root for Baby and Johnny over the objections of the stern Houseman clan and Kellerman's snooty patrons. In that sense, 'Dirty Dancing' could even be called subversive, in that it brought a bit of racy taboo-busting to the consumerist, Reagan-era '80s.
Yet the reason 'Dirty Dancing' really works is because of Grey and Swayze. Okay, so their hair is really bad, and the endless music video montages the film sticks them in are glorious camp. But Grey, despite her self-conscious line readings (it always seems like she is looking just slightly off-camera at cue cards), has such a fresh, appealing personality that she radiates bubbly charm. And Swayze admirably does not condescend or trivialize Johnny, who in other hands might have been just another poor man's James Dean. Swayze really makes us buy Johnny's predicament, and as a result we understand why Baby has fallen so hard for her savior in a leather jacket. It's a tougher, smarter performance than Swayze's ever been given credit for.
And then of course there's the film's climax -- set to the ingratiating number one hit "(I've Had the) Time of My Life)" -- when our heroic young lovers finally stand up to the repressive values of Baby's family, and unite all of Kellerman's in a huge explosion of dirty dancing. By the time Johnny utters his immortal line "Nobody puts baby in a corner!", it's impossible not to bust into a huge, Cheshire cat of a grin. 'Dirty Dancing' may be cinematic junk food, but it earns every calorie. Guilty pleasures don't come any sweeter than this.
'Dirty Dancing' makes its high-def debut in a newly remastered 1.85:1 widescreen 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer, and there's both good news and bad news here. The good news is that this is easily the best this movie has ever looked. At the same time, however, some issues inherent to the source material seem to prevent this title from benefiting all that much from the jump to high-definition.
The print itself is in generally fine shape. Major blemishes have been cleaned up (dropouts, excessive dirt, etc.) However, film grain can fluctuate and will likely be too much for some. Some scenes are still faded, with that '80s fuzzy look that is only marginally better than standard -def, such as Baby's first trip to the backroom den of dirty dancing. Colors are decent, but 'Dirty Dancing' has just never been a particularly vibrant-looking movie, especially the lackluster reds and blues. The photography has a bland, almost TV movie-like look, with only middling color saturation and flat contrast. Some of the outdoor moments (particularly the classic camp of the "Hungry Eyes" montage) have pop, but much of the movie hardly oozes with depth. Finally, there is some serious edginess at times, enough that I was distracted by the "jaggies" often. Still, 'Dirty Dancing' is always watchable, and for a late-'80s, low-budget sleeper, it looks fair enough.
Lionsgate continues to treat 'Dirty Dancing' as the 'Citizen Kane' of cheesy MTV-era musicals, granting the film with a brand-new uncompressed PCM 6.1 surround track (48kHz/16-bit/6.9mbps). Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, this track is arguably more than this film really needs, as the sound design is far too reserved and front-heavy to create an effective, sustained wall of sound.
Like the video, though, tech specs are more than respectable for a film like this. Dynamics may be lacking by recent standards but there is still some fairly solid low bass and dialogue is cleanly reproduced. Yet even on the now-classic songs, the mix never really bumps and grinds quite like you want it to. Surrounds again are meager -- there are a few discrete effects, mostly during any sequence involving dancers on a stage (such as Baby and Johnny's first dance at the hotel), in which there is at least some presence to the songs in the rears. Atmosphere is pretty limited -- the montage near the end of the second act (set to Patrick Swayze's infamous "She's Like the Wind") at least delivers some sustained ambiance in the surrounds. Otherwise, even with 6.1 full channels of uncompressed audio, 'Dirty Dancing' never really really overwhelms.
Okay, now this is getting ridiculous. Lionsgate has jammed this 20th Anniversary Edition of 'Dirty Dancing' with so many extras that this Blu-ray rivals even Patrick Swayze's bad mullet in sheer girth. Truly, the number of bulletpoints on the back of the box is hilarious.
Let's start with some of the stuff regurgitated from past DVD releases of 'Dirty Dancing.' Two audio commentaries are included -- the first a group track with choreographer Kenny Ortega, actress Miranda Garrison, director of photography Jeff Jur, costume designer Hilary Rosenfeld and production designer David Chapman, while the second features screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein. Curiously, even with five participants on the first track (though most were recorded separately then edited together), it's kinda dull -- no one really shares any really exciting tidbits aside from the mundane, nor any good dirt on Jennifer Grey or Patrick Swayze. But Bergstein's solo track really makes up for it -- she's sincere and very informative, as her script closely paralleled her own experiences growing up in the Pocanos as a young teenager. She explains just about every major plot point and character development as the movie progresses, and it's really a great track -- better than you'd probably expect for a movie like 'Dirty Dancing.'
A third "commentary" is also included, the "'Dirty Dancing' 20th Anniversary Pop-Up Trivia Track." About half has been re-purposed from the previous "Ultimate Edition" DVD release, although this version does include some new factoids and much snazzier graphics. It's all very VH-1, "Pop-Up Video"-esque, and tons of fun. Most appreciated are all the newer tidbits about the various songs and music acts in the film, which were glossed over on the previously-produced subtitle track.
Next we have a collection of interviews, all recorded and edited separately. Totaling over 40 minutes, chats are included with Grey, Garrison, Ortega, Bergstein and (in an exclusive to this new 20th Anniversary Edition) Swayze. Unfortunately, aside from the new Swayze chat, these are really poorly shot interviews. Grey's is so bad, in fact, that the audio is frequently interrupted by airplanes flying overhead and other noises -- did they record this in her backyard? Still, she and Swayze are open and quite entertaining -- Grey's initial fears that she'd signed on to do "a direct-to-video porn movie" are particularly hilarious.
Also included are a pair of featurettes, one new and another plucked from the previous DVD. "A Tribute to Emile Ardolino" and "A Tribute to Jerry Orbach" both celebrate the film's late director and star, respectively. Both are just compilations of clips from the same interviews mentioned above, along with photos and clips. Still, the comments are heartfelt, and sweet. Lionsgate has also tacked on the 8-minute "The Classic: Story on Stage" featurette, which hawks the upcoming 'Dirty Dancing' London stage production(!). Seriously, this enterprise was backed by a recent 8-episode reality series on the WE Network, and apparently tickets are selling fast. I weep for the future.
But wait, we're just getting going. Lionsgate has dug through their vaults and found another nearly 30 minutes of never-before-seen Deleted Scenes, Alternate Scenes, Extended Scenes and Outtakes. Whew! Who knew this much lost footage existed for "Dirty Dancing?' Alas, most of this material is just how it is described -- longer versions of existing material. However, it's all worth it just to see an unexpurgated version of Grey and Swayze getting all misty to "Hungry Eyes." As a further bonus, you'll also find the original Screen Test for Grey, which is oft-cited in her interview. It's a nugget worth watching, because even if her acting is a bit rough around the edges you can see why (pre-nose job) the camera just loved her.
More fun comes by way of three MTV chestnuts: music videos for "(I've Had) The Time of My Life," "She's Like the Wind" and "Hungry Eyes." All are absolutely riveting artifacts of '80s awfulness. There are also a trio of Multi-Angle Dance Sequences new to this 20th Anniversary Edition. However, it's a bit of stretch to call them "multi-angle," given that the original coverage of the sequences was quite limited, so these are really just different montages accessible by a quick flick of your remote.
Finally, because you know you want more, there is a new Interactive Photo Gallery with about three dozen production and publicity stills.
(Note: Though the back of the box claims "Special Features Presented in High-Definition Resolution," I somewhat doubt the extent of the claim. Though the video-based extras are all presented for 16:9 screens, much of it looks like 480 upconverts. As you might expect, the music videos are presented only in full frame, though look as good as they probably could.)
'Dirty Dancing' is a ton of fun -- a warm, likable, sincere '80s coming-of-age flick that drips with nostalgia. It's still a kick to flashback to that more innocent time, when Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze were the hottest screen couple around and the sight of dancing extras gyrating wildly was still considered racy. Lionsgate has served up perhaps the best possible Blu-ray release for this guilty pleasure, with a nice transfer and soundtrack, plus a ridiculous amount of supplements. If you'll love 'Dirty Dancing,' you'll have the time of your life with this Blu-ray release.