Why would a television network ever try to tackle a remake of one of the most beloved movies from the 80s, Dirty Dancing? It’s a question I asked myself last week, and practically discarded, until curiosity got the better of me.
In case you’re not familiar with the movie, the premise of Dirty Dancing is a coming of age story seen through the eyes of Frances “Baby” Houseman, who in the summer of 1963, spends a three-week vacation with her family at Kellerman’s Mountain Lodge, a five-star resort in the Catskills in New York State. Baby is a smart, wholesome girl with plans to go into the Peace Corps out of college. She always does right by her parents and always follows the rules. A secret crush on one of the male dancers at the resort prompted Baby to curiously sneak past the “restricted to staff only” signs one evening. There, she runs into a friendly staff member who needs help carrying watermelons into the staff quarters. She then enters into one of the secret and frequent after-hours parties the working-class employees at Kellerman’s throw to blow off steam. The music is loud, the room is smokey, and the dancing is dirty! It is here that Baby meets the object of her crush, Johnny, and along with his dance partner Penny, a different world opened up to Baby from her sheltered upbringing. Johnny taught her how to dance and soon the two became inseparable…much to Baby’s father’s chagrin, who disapproves of Johnny’s sketchy pedigree… but don’t worry, folks, cue the Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes, and there you have your happy ending…Baby had the time of her life…she arrives a girl, but leaves a woman.
The original Dirty Dancing is one of the core movies from my childhood. I saw the film in the movie theatre in August 1987, and later was able to re-watch a taped version off of VHS (and since have bought the DVD and Blu-ray). It was one of those films that was on a constant loop at our house, and I never got tired of it. There was something magical about it. The pairing of Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze, their dancing, and the love affair that the two emoted on screen was nuclear. Here was a girl who had a crush on someone and was able to actually attract the object of her affections, fall in love with them and live happily ever after; a dream come true for any teenage girl. Not to mention, the dancing and music were a perfect pairing. For a girl on the verge of teenhood, Dirty Dancing was a film that will forever resonate.
While watching the 2017 version of Dirty Dancing, I couldn’t help but make comparisons to the original. I found myself swearing, cringing, guffawing and shaking my head in disbelief. As a matter of fact, the first raw critical thought I wrote down after watching it was:
“This did everything wrong.”
As I was trying to formulate this review, everything came up negative with me – EVERYTHING. I realized after my third attempt to write this blogpost that objectivity would be difficult here; I was too much in love with the original! So I did something I don’t normally do: I re-watched Dirty Dancing 2017 and tried to find some good in this film.
The 2017 version of Dirty Dancing stars Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) as Baby, Colt Prattes (dancer in Broadway productions) as Johnny, Sarah Hyland (Modern Family) as Baby’s older sister Lisa, and Nicole Scherzinger (Pussycat Dolls) as Penny. We also see Debra Messing and Bruce Greenwood in a surprise pairing as Baby’s parents. Other recognizable actors were here too – Tony Roberts, Billy Dee Williams and Katey Sagal also make an appearance. This reboot follows the same plot from the original 1987 version, pretty much scene for scene, including soundtrack. Certain key characters’ plots, though, have been expanded upon here where they were glazed over in the original, particularly Baby’s parents and their marital troubles, as well as Lisa’s attraction to an entertainer.
The one major difference with Dirty Dancing 2017 is that practically every scene has the actors singing and dancing, using this as a plot device to move the film along, unlike the 1987 original. Every character here was made to sing: Johnny, Penny, Baby, her parents…everyone. With so much of its production focused on singing and dance routines I concluded that Dirty Dancing 2017 is actually more of the musical rendition of the original, as opposed to a remake of the original. With this thought in mind, re-watching this film was a lot more palatable for me.
What was a hit for me pretty much came down to casting for this film.
Abigail Breslin as Baby. At first viewing, I thought Breslin was mis-cast as Baby. She is almost too wholesome and fresh-faced to pull off dirty anything, let alone dirty dancing. But, honestly, I think she is a match – a bit clumsy, but purely honest. You can see her feelings in her facial expressions. I also liked the fact she doesn’t look totally polished here like a lot of the actresses we see nowadays.
Lisa, Baby’s sister. I really liked the relationship development between Baby and her sister. The 1987 version saw Lisa as aloof, selfish, and frankly a bit mean to Baby. It wasn’t necessary to expand her story-line, but I am glad there was a bit of breadth to Lisa’s character. The remake had them different from each other, but close sisters, and this is where Hyland and Breslin shone. Cue the scene where Baby reveals she is in love with Johnny – these two light up the screen. It was cute to watch.
Katey Sagal as Vivian Pressman. Vivian is a Bungalow Bunny at Kellerman’s and is a secondary character in the Dirty Dancing franchise. She basically lives at the Lodge during the week while her husband is away working. She takes dance lessons, drinks cocktails and sleeps with the staff. In the 2017 version, she is divorced, and happy about it, but still sleeping with staff. Seeing Sagal play a Bungalow Bunny was a real treat. She basically reprises her Gemma Teller Morrow role from Sons of Anarchy here. We even get to hear her sing “Fever”, and it was pretty decent.
Debra Messing and Bruce Greenwood playing Baby’s parents. Marital problems have come to a head at Kellerman’s. At first, I didn’t think exploring this avenue was necessary at all, and to a certain extent, I still don’t think so, but, I did enjoy seeing Debra Messing and Bruce Greenwood together, even if they were fighting.
Unfortunately, my optimistic lens was slightly askew and there were just some aspects of Dirty Dancing 2017 I couldn’t get past.
Jazz hands! Yes, I did say this is more of a musical. But, it seemed they shoe-horned singing routines where they should let the music play. In one scene, Baby and Penny practice some dancing, and Penny just starts breaking into song. And there was plenty more where that came from…
Hello iTunes marketing! Um, where is the classic music the original film was famous for? Most songs, with few exceptions, were remakes; even the Jennifer Warnes and Bill Medley hit. What’s worse, most of it was autotuned! Can you imagine the Patrick Swayze hit, “She’s Like the Wind” remade…and autotuned? It happened! Prepare for a push of sales of the Dirty Dancing 2017 soundtrack on iTunes…this would have been partly forgivable had Dirty Dancing 2017 just been touted as a musical version…
Changing a famous line. If you are rebooting a franchise, you are allowed to take some creative liberties, and obviously, Dirty Dancing 2017 took many. But, look – never change key lines from the film. There is a famous part from the 1987 film where Baby is approached by Johnny for the first time, asking how she got into the Staff Quarters without permission, to which she says:
In the 2017 version, she says:
This isn’t the end of the world, except it was an unnecessary edit that I don’t understand the reasoning for. It was made even worse by Johnny who, instead of walking away silent like in the original, retorts:
OUCH! Sorry, but that is super lame. Why change it??
Lastly, NO CHEMISTRY between Baby and Johnny. Yes, indeed. The crux of the movie hinged on the love affair between Baby and Johnny, and I am sorry, it was missing in this film, and I blame Prattes for that. Breslin was able to convey a puppy dog crush, and all Prattes rewarded us with was an aloof jerkiness; dancing with Baby because he had to, pretending to love her because the script said so… I just didn’t feel it between Breslin and Prattes. Breslin worked her ass off here, and we got nothing but a leap off the stage and some jetés from Prattes. There was only ONE part of one scene where I actually felt there was “something” between them, but really it was Breslin and soft lighting that won it:
Armchair critics were very harsh with this 2017 remake of Dirty Dancing, and honestly, there are some inexcusable things here that are detrimental, but it isn’t all terrible. The dance numbers for what it’s worth are pretty okay, and I did enjoy the expanded sub-plots. Honestly, if I were 13 and watching this version today, I think I might have liked it a lot…maybe more than the 1987 version? I don’t know. I saw a bit of myself in this version of Baby, likewise seeing myself in 1987 Baby. There were indeed some likeable things with Dirty Dancing 2017. You may not have the time of your life, but there is no need to leave Baby in the corner.
2.75 / 5
Dirty Dancing (2017)
Aired on ABC, May 24, 2017