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Monday, May 22, 2017

Is "Dirty Dancing" a Musical?

One major genre of movies is the "musical". The Wikipedia article on Musical Film defines the genre as follows:
The musical film is a film genre in which songs sung by the characters are interwoven into the narrative, sometimes accompanied by dancing. The songs usually advance the plot or develop the film's characters, though in some cases they serve merely as breaks in the storyline, often as elaborate "production numbers".
The lead characters in the movie Dirty Dancing do not sing, but they do dance to lyrical songs played on record players. In that regard, Dirty Dancing is a partial kind of musical.

In Dirty Dancing, the songs do not advance the plot or develop the characters. The songs are period pieces that evoke the early 1960s, when the story takes place.


When movie experts discuss musical films, they commonly use the words non-diegetic and diegetic. The noun diegesis refers to a movie's core story, without background narration and music.

If music is non-diegetic, then the characters themselves are not aware of and do not respond to the music that the movie audience hears on the soundtrack. In some such movies, the non-diegetic music is an outstanding feature of the movie. For example, the movie The Graduate succeeded to a large extent because of the songs of Simon and Garfunkel. The movie's characters are oblivious, however, to the songs, which therefore are non-diegetic.

Likewise, the movie Midnight Cowboy succeeded to a large extent because of the songs of Harry Nilsson. These  characters too are oblivious to the songs, which therefore are non-diegetic.

Despite the importance of the music in the above two movies, nobody considers either movie to be a musical, because all the music is non-diegetic. The music is not part of the diegesis, the core story.

In contrast, the characters in Dirty Dancing put records onto record players and dance to the songs. The characters are aware of the songs, which therefore are diegetic.


A movie's music can be diegetic even though the music does not really exist. This below scene from Oklahoma takes place at a rural train station, where no orchestra is present. Nevertheless, the characters sing and dance in close coordination with orchestra music that they magically hear.

In this following scene from Fiddler on the Roof, characters sing and dance, and orchestra music plays on the soundtrack. However, the singing and dancing is coordinated with the orchestra music so loosely that we might consider the orchestra music is non-diegetic. These characters are singing and dancing without being aware of the orchestra music, which is merely accompanying them for the audience's benefit.

Imagine that the orchestra music were removed from the above two scenes. Without the orchestra music, the Oklahoma scene is not plausible -- the characters must be responding to music, which therefore must be diegestic. Without the orchestra music, the Fiddler on the Roof scene is plausible -- the orchestra music could be either diegetic or non-diegetic.


One method of making movie music obviously diegetic is to show the characters participating in a musical performance. For example, the following scene in The King and I shows characters performing a musical play. They are singing and dancing to orchestra music. The movie audience understands that an orchestra is present near the play's stage and is playing for the characters, even though the movie audience does not see the orchestra.


The movie Dirty Dancing is a musical, because the characters are aware of and reacting to much of the music. In this regard, Dirty Dancing is different from The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy.

The diegetic music in Dirty Dancing is varied. In a few scenes, the movie audience sees the characters put a record onto a record player and then dance to the music. In a few scenes the characters dance to a record player that the movie audience does not see but understands is present.

In a few scenes, however, the audience understands that a record player is not present. For example, the movie audience hears music when Baby and Johnny are practicing on a log over a brook or in a lake, and the audience understands that no record player is present and so Baby and Johnny do not hear any music. These scenes are similar to the Fiddler on the Roof scene in which the characters' actions would be plausible without any music on the soundtrack.


In the musical genre, the characters normally sing songs, but the lead characters do not sing in Dirty Dancing. However, the movie is full of lyrical songs, which are heard being played on record players or on the radio in a diegetic manner. For example, the movie audience sees Johnny putting a record onto a record player and then he and Baby dance to the music. Johnny and Baby are not singing, but the record artists are singing.

In the early decades of film, lyrical songs practically never were used in soundtracks, but now lyrical songs have become common. In many such films the lyrical songs are non-diegetic (e.g. The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy), and in many such films the lyrical songs are diegetic (e.g. Dirty Dancing and Footloose).

The evolution of non-diegetic lyrical songs in soundtracks has been outlined by Mark Richards in a blog article titled Popular Song as Performance-Based Non-Diegetic Music.


In another blog article, titled Diegetic Music, Non-Diegetic Music and "Source Scoring", Richards defines a soundtrack technique which is called "Source Scoring" and which is a mixture of diegetic and non-diegetic music. A scene begins with diegetic movie but then develops into non-diegetic music.

Richards provides an example in the movie The Man Who Knew Too Much. The movie audience sees a scene where characters are listening to a concert performance -- diegetic music. Then, however, the concert music continues to play on the soundtrack as the movie audience sees other characters in another place, and the continuing concert music corresponds to those characters' actions. For the characters in the other place, the music is non-diegetic. This kind of transition where diegetic music continues to play and becomes non-diegetic music is called "score sourcing".

Dirty Dancing includes such a score-sourcing transition. Baby and Johnny are inside a building, and she is practicing to a record player that is playing the song "Wipe Out". Inside, Baby actually hears the music, which therefore is diegetic. A moment later, Baby is outside, far from the record player, but the song "Wipe Out" continues to play. Now Baby does not actually hear the music -- although the movie audience continues to hear it -- so now the music is non-diegetic.


In a scholarly article titled Is Dirty Dancing a Musical, and Why Should It Matter?, film historian Jane Ferer defines the place of Dirty Dancing in the evolution of the musical genre. Feuer is the author of a book titled The Hollywood Musical and therefore is an expert on the genre. In her article about Dirty Dancing, Feuer describes the diegetic singing and instrumental music.
Dirty Dancing has "almost" no diegetic singing because the diegetic singing it does have is of a limited nature, typically comical or ironic. Lisa's singing with hilarious gestures at the amateur talent show is a prime example.

One could also cite the lip-synching the couple does in the "Love is Strange" number, where Baby mocks Johnny by reversing roles and teaching him to dance. Notably their lip-synching is not performative, because they are clearly singing to the diegetic music on the record player. The number is thus naturalistic, as is the diegetic singing of the Kellerman's "anthem" at the end of the summer amateur show. ...

The song "(I've Had) The Time of My Life" has its diegetic components. It starts out emitting from a record player, but as it continues, the sound is clearly studio-recorded -- and not in 1963. The male and female voices of the song stand in for Baby and Johnny; the lyrics narrate their experience, yet the voices are clearly not their own voices. This becomes obvious as Johnny briefly lip-synchs to Baby as they dance, a miming that is not meat to be actual diegetic singing.

As the community dancing evolves, the music seems to be taken up by a diegetic orchestra whose instrumentation and scoring would have been realistic for the Catskills in the 1963. For although the soundtrack is pre-recorded in a studio, the many amateur touches in the scene give it a "folk" quality.
Feuer refers to three musical subgenres that have been defined by film historian Rick Altman.

1) In a show musical, the characters prepare to present a show. The preparations and the show itself provide occasions of singing and dancing.

2) In a fairy-tale musical, the characters travel to an exotic place where people and supernatural beings naturally sing and dance.

3)  In a folk musical, the story takes place in a nation's past golden age, when people still sang and danced in a primitive but charming manner.

Feuer argues that Dirty Dancing includes features of all three subgenres.

** Show: Johnny prepares Baby to dance at the Sheldrake hotel and prepares the staff to perform at the hotel's final-evening concert.

** Fairy Tale: Baby enters the staff bunkhouse, a secret place of "dirty dancing" at night.

** Folk: The movie takes place in 1963, before the assassination of President Kennedy ruined American society.

Dirty Dancing obviously is a show musical, but Feur argues that the movie fits all three subgenres and is mostly a folk musical.  About the movie's fairy-tale features, Feuer writes:
... Yet Dirty Dancing cannot be classified entirely as a "show" musical. It also borrows semantic and syntactic elements from the fairy-tale musical, which, according to Altman, takes place in a fairy-tale kingdom or hotel, features ballroom dancing, and ends with the return to order of the hotel or kingdom after the couple's class differences have sent it into chaos.

Kellerman's resort becomes the defining fairy-tale element for the film, and the fact that the fate of the resort is tied to the success of the couple locates Dirty Dancing firmly within the fairy-tale tradition of such films as Top Hat. ....

.... the fairy-tale musical [relies] on class difference between the male and female leads ... based ... on the very early musicals with roots in European operettas. Thus, the class differences had little to do with ethnicity and more to do with older, European differences between the aristocracy and commoners.
Feuer argues that Dirty Dancing fits best into the folk-musical subgenre.
Dirty Dancing is one of the most "ethnic" musical ever made (with the additional exception of explicitly Jewish films such as Funny Girl and Fiddler on the Roof.

Dirty Dancing acknowledges its debt to Catskills culture, yet it does so without ever explicitly identifying its setting or characters as Jewish. .... The film gets to have it both ways -- to an audience even somewhat familiar with Catskills culture, it is full of "insider" references, yet to a mass audience, it merely represents class barriers between Baby's family and Johnny. ....

Dirty Dancing ... could take the class issues much further, all the way to setting up an opposition between upper-middle-class, professional, college-educated Jews and the goyim that taught them how to dance at Catskills resorts. Here we are dealing with an explicitly, real, American situation. ...

Many of the numbers in the film ... add to the nostalgia of the folk musical: old record players, hotel orchestras, lip-synching.
I disagree with Feuer's argument that Dirty Dancing fits best into the folk-musical subgenre. She exaggerates the movie's Jewish elements, which are subtle. Also, the movie's music is not caused by the Jewish elements. Rather, the music is caused by the characters' preparing to perform in shows. The movie fits best into the show-musical subgenre.

In her article's conclusion, Feuer writes that Dirty Dancing is an important movie in the evolution of the musical genre:
Dirty Dancing ... can be viewed as a transformation of the traditional Hollywood musical if one wishes to stress continuity over difference. ....

So, what difference does it make to say that Dirty Dancing is a reconstructive, but nevertheless authentic, musical? For me, it has to do with trying to establish a chain of continuity within the film musical genre so that, although one can register shifts in emphasis from diegetic to non-diegetic, from discrete subgenres to pastiched ones, from diegetic singing to diegetic dancing, from deconstructive to reconstructive, one can also see what, for the want of a better time, I would call a very long and continuous tradition in American musical entertainment.

If operetta films in the early 1930s had a lot of non-pop singing and very little dancing, and if dance films post-1990 did the opposite, that does not mean that we can't view them as transformations in a film genre that is perhaps the longest and most enduring of all.
My own opinion is that  the musical genre has evolved so that it now includes works -- such as Dirty Dancing-- where the singing is done by professional singers on recordings that are played by the movie's characters, who just dance and do not sing.

Another such musical in this evolution is Footloose, about which I wrote in a previous article.


A couple of days after I published this article, I wrote a supplemental article, titled Recorded-Music Technology and the Musical Genre.

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