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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

My Praise for ABC's "Dirty Dancing" -- Part 1

On May 24, 2017, ABC broadcast the ABC original movie event (notice that expression on the poster) titled Dirty Dancing.

ABC does not call the movie a remake, which is the word used by most people who discuss the movie. Here in this blog article, I will use the expression ABC original movie (not remake).

If you have not seen the ABC original movie, then watching this video, made by Clevver News, summarizes it well.

Having watched the ABC original movie three times, I like it. I encourage people to watch the ABC original movie with an open mind. I encourage people who already have watched it -- even if they hated it -- to watch it again.


The ABC original movie has received little praise. The website Rotten Tomatoes reports favorable reviews from only 20% of the professional reviewers and from 12% of ordinary reviewers. I will provide excerpts from four negative reviews.

Then I will provide my own, positive review.


 Here are excerpts from a negative review, written by television critic Neil Genzlinger for The New York Times:
The Dirty Dancing phenomenon was never really about the story — or the music — or even the dancing. It was about the way those things came together at a particular moment in time for a particular audience in a gritty movie featuring two engaging stars.

That kind of lightning in a bottle can’t be recreated, a point ABC takes a wearying three hours to make on Wednesday night with its new, chemistry-free version of that beloved film. Most of the signature scenes are reproduced — watermelons are carried, a dance lift in a lake is attempted — but the emotional investment that made the 1987 movie an unexpected worldwide phenomenon is nowhere to be felt. ...

The music is also handled differently. Rather than having a soundtrack, the remake often has actors singing the numbers as they would on Broadway. But the device generally feels forced and isn’t used often enough to give this treatment the feel of a full-fledged musical. It’s more like “a movie in which actors occasionally burst into song for no reason.” A real musical deploys its songs organically; here they tend to interrupt rather than enhance.

The hope for this “Dirty Dancing” is presumably that it will both charm the original fans and appeal to viewers who today are the age that those fans were in 1987. But no young person in 2017 wants to hear another word about the 1960s. And the moviegoers who loved Dirty Dancing in the Reagan administration will recognize this new version for the sterile imitation that it is. ...

Here are excepts from a second negative review, written by movie critic Mae Abdulbaki for The Young Folks:
Remaking one of the most popular and beloved movies in the history of cinema feels almost disrespectful on many levels. Going into the TV movie remake of Dirty Dancing with a clear and open mind, I figured that if at least the dancing was good, then there was something to enjoy. However, the updated version doesn’t even meet the lowest of expectations and blows past mediocre to land at downright terrible. The film is slow and dull, the lead actors have absolutely no chemistry, and the musical aspect doesn’t add anything to the film beyond being time-consuming.

The Dirty Dancing remake follows the same general storyline of the original film. It’s still set in the 1960s, Baby Houseman (Abigail Breslin) still ends up falling for Johnny Castle (Colt Prattes), and she still fights the expectations set by her father (Bruce Greenwood). However, it modifies some of the narrative and, to put it simply, makes it much more palatable and suitable for a younger audience. This Disney-washing, if you will, takes away some of the more serious and important aspects of the original film and makes it feel like more of a saccharine version of it. The remake also expands on several characters’ backstory, like that of Baby’s mother (Debra Messing) and father. This version of the film gives them marital problems and allows Baby’s sister, Lisa (Sarah Hyland), to develop outside of the story of simply falling for a jerk.

It’s important for any remake to set itself apart from the original film it’s based on, but Dirty Dancing only allows for so many changes and mostly follows the original narrative verbatim. The additional aspects–the singing, the expansion of some character dynamics, its attempts at being really cute – don’t add anything to the film at all. The TV movie is long, clocking in at two hours and ten minutes, and there are several instances where it becomes boring to watch. ....

Here are excerpts from a third negative review, written by television critic Sonia Saraiya for Variety:
Dirty Dancing on ABC is a sappy, passionless, schlocky remake of the original, without even the iota of imagination necessary to expand upon the 1987 film. Nearly every element of the film that caught worldwide audiences’ imaginations has been sanded down into an advertisement-ready imagining of the swinging ‘60s.

What stands out most, surprisingly, is the smallest of details — the cast doesn’t sweat, even while they are dancing in the hot summer, or while they are making love in the middle of the humid night. There’s nothing dirty about this. And there’s barely even dancing: The production attached “Hamilton” choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, but it’s unclear what they did with his talents, because dance sequences do not take up much of the film’s run-time, and what is seen is sadly below par. The average ABC viewer can see better on an off-week of Dancing With the Stars.

This is not to specifically ding lead Abigail Breslin, who is quite winning during the scenes where Baby is called upon to express emotions. But Dirty Dancing is a dance movie, and Breslin, while competent, is not a dazzling performer. Opposite her, Colt Prattes, who plays Johnny, is a better dancer but a far worse actor.

The two have all the chemistry of mannequins, which makes their already improbable love story completely incomprehensible. And then to make matters worse, they start singing — a bizarre departure from the mise-en-scene in a story that puts realism at the forefront. In the original film, when Swayze and Grey lipsync to “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” or “Love Is Strange,” there’s an impromptu enthusiasm to the scenes — just two kids singing along to their favorite songs. In the remake, those rareified moments of intimacy become another opportunity to showboat for the camera. ...

Here are excerpts from a fourth negative review, written by film-maker Scout Tafoya for Roger Ebert.
.... Every room is a little too big and every actor is a little too far away from the camera, as in a multi-camera sitcom. [Director Wayne] Blair has no eye for the dancing, which is his most lethal failing. He has no sense of how to film bodies, the space needed to ensure we see the impressive physicality of each performer, no sense of how to communicate the sensual thrill of two people touching. Blair may well be trying to shoot around the lackluster choreography, which also fails the performers at every turn. The dancers may as well be rogue parade floats accidentally smacking into each other. The music direction is similarly ghastly. Slick, soulless covers of 60s and 80s pop and ballads stumble around like reanimated corpses on the soundtrack.

That's all bad enough, but the final 15 minutes detonate a nuclear bomb of misbegotten ambition in the viewer's brain. It dares you to reconsider your opinion of every poorly staged number and overacted monologue. Prattes' constipated Johnny Castle storms the dance hall for his closing performance, walks over to the table where Baby and her family sit, and delivers the now iconic line that lodged "Dirty Dancing" into popular cinematic imagination. His somnambulant read of "Nobody puts Baby in a corner" spurts from his lips like a mouthful of water he'd forgotten to swallow. A film which had been held together with hope and a prayer until this point, finally falls apart. ....

Now I will provide my own, positive opinion of the ABC original movie. My basic arguments:

* Some stories become so implanted in our culture that they flourish with a multitude of variations and embellishments. Our culture is full of people who love the story and want to retell it. Younger generations of producers, directors, actors, musicians and designers will want to apply their own artistic talents to present the story to younger generations of audiences. We should welcome, appreciate and celebrate these creative efforts -- not denounce, mock and stifle them.

* You can enjoy a lot of fun, surprises and laughs by watching new presentations. For example, in the ABC original movie, the the actor who plays Johnny is much smaller than Patrick Swayze and the actress who plays Baby is much heavier than Jennifer Grey, and so the audience feels amused in anticipating and watching the lift movement in the final dance. It's funny!

* New presentations will fill in gaps in the original story, clarify fuzzy elements, add new characters and subplots, enlarge minor characters, challenge established assumptions and interpretations -- and thus enrich the original story.

* New presentations might attract other social groups to become fans of the story. For example, the ABC original movie adds an African-American character and enlarges the roles of the older characters.

* Some elements of new presentations might be improvements. For example, ABC's Neil Kellerman is a different, more realistic and thought-provoking character.


In order to open your mind about the ABC movie, I suggest that you replace the  expression remake in your thinking with the word original movie. To help you do so, I will use the following expressions in this article:

* The ABC original movie.

* The Gottlieb original movie. (This is the 1987 movie that was produced by Linda Gottlieb and that starred Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze.)

* The San Pietro original movie. (This is a 2014 movie made by an Italian amateur theater club at the Communale San Pietro.)

* The Uskup original movie. (This is a 2012 movie made by a Umskup drama club in the Czech Republic.)

These four movies differ so much that each deserves to be called "original". Each can be enjoyed in its own circumstances and on its level.

If you were a tourist who happened to come across those live performances in Italy or the Czech Republic, you would have enjoyed watching them. You would have smiled and laughed the entire time. You would not have judged them harshly. They were just young foreigners having fun and putting their own spin on the story -- changing it into an Italian story or a Czech story, with their own cultural references and jokes.

Likewise, the new generations of Americans who made the ABC original movie have adapted the story to their own attitudes and sensibilities. By casting a grungy actor and a chubby actress into the lead roles, they have provocatively outraged the older generations that devoutly venerate the now ancient movie, which has become a sacred cow.

A grungy Johnny and a chubby Baby
in a "Dirty Dancing" for new generations. 
Many girls and young women now identify primarily with the Baby Houseman played by Abigail Breslin, an actress they have watched for many years.


The website IMDb lists 48 Tarzan movies, from 1918 through 2005. Each one can be appreciated on its own merits, as an original movie. We don't consider the last 47 of these Tarzan movies to be "remakes" of the first Tarzan movie that was made in 1918.

The Tarzan movies continue to be made for various reasons. They are exotic, exciting and funny. They feature an extraordinarily handsome male character. They can raise various cultural, political and environmental issues. The basic story is so well known that the audience keeps it in mind while watching new, alternate, spun-off stories.


In an earlier article in my blog, I wrote about the two Footloose movies -- released in 1984 and 2011. Each is a good movie, and each can be appreciated independently.

Of course, the Tarzan movies and the Footloose movies are based on written works that existed before the movies, whereas the Dirty Dancing movies are not based no a prior written work. However, very few people have read the Tarzan novel or the Footloose article. In the mind of the public that has not read the Tarzan novel, all the Tarzan movies are based on abstract story that has become a part of our culture.

Likewise, the Dirty Dancing story is so well known that the story -- as an abstraction -- has become a part of our culture.


Consider the story of The Wizard of Oz. Because of the 1939 movie, the story has become so well known that other works can be based quite loosely on the abstract story -- for example, Broadway musical The Wiz and the television series The Tin Man.


The Dirty Dancing story has been made into a stage musical (which I have not studied or seen). Somehow, moving the story from a movie onto a theater stage is "really fun". As an example of that open-minded attitude, here is an excerpt from a theater review written by Jane Horwitz for the Washington Post.
.... So, is this highly commercial, “live” re-creation of a beloved film an example of great and artful theatrical innovation? Nope, it is not. But is it really fun? Yup. ....

The characters talk a bit more about civil rights, Vietnam, and class conflict onstage. Musically, choruses of “We Shall Overcome” and “This Land Is Your Land” emphasize, somewhat awkwardly, growing political and social unrest. ....

You know the story: The Houseman family arrives for three weeks of fun in the Catskills at Kellerman’s resort. .... Baby jumps at the chance to learn Penny’s part for a steamy number with Johnny.

All these crises whiz by amid the strains of, among others, “The Time of My Life,” “Do You Love Me?,” “Cry to Me,” and the comical “Lisa’s Hula” for the hotel talent show. Audiences hear some master recordings from the film’s soundtrack, and other numbers performed live. A couple of terrific singers shine: Doug Carpenter, who plays Johnny’s cousin Billy Kostecki, belts a gorgeous “In the Still of the Night,” and Jennlee Shallow movingly solos on “You Don’t Own Me” and “We Shall Overcome.” ....

A few weaker links in the acting department dampen the fizz at times, but most such moments go by too fast to cause damage. ....
If it's "really fun" for a theater company to change the story so that the characters sing some of the songs and so that new songs are added, then it might be "really fun" if ABC exercises similar creativity.


In ancient Greece there were annual festivals that featured drama competitions. A mythical story -- for example the Oedipus Rex story -- would be chosen for the year's competition. The entire population already knew the mythical story from famous legends and poems. Various drama clubs were sponsored by wealthy patrons, and each club prepared a play and then performed it at the festival. A prize was presented for the year's best play.

Although each play was about the same mythical story, each play presented unique scripts, songs, characters and plot details. Watching the variety of plays was an enriching experience. The mythical story was elaborated. Some minor characters became major characters. Background details and subplots were added. New poetry and songs became popular. Citizens who attended such a festival and watched a dozen different plays about, for example, Oedipus Rex enriched their understanding of that mythical story.

Even if an Oedipus Rex play already had been performed many years previously, the various new plays performed at this year's festival were not considered to be "re-makes". Rather, each new play was appreciated as an original play.


The ABC original movie enriches the abstract "Dirty Dancing" story that has become a part of our culture.

Even if you watched the ABC original movie and hated it, the new idea has been planted into your mind that Jake as a young man used to work as a waiter at the Kellerman resort hotel and that he met Marjorie there. You never will get that idea out of your subconscious mind.

Similarly, people who watched the stage play know now that the song "We Shall Overcome" was sung at the Kellerman resort hotel during the Kellermans' vacation.

As the abstract story is told variously in separate dramas, new details are added -- for example, young Jake the waiter and the song "We Shall Overcome". This elaboration is similar to the drama-festival elaboration of the Oedipus Rex story in Greece's culture.


This essay is the first in a series of four articles.

The series second article is here.

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