The original 1987 Dirty Dancing is a movie that worked against all odds. Eighties sensibility (and hairstyles and theme song) shoehorned into a Sixties nostalgia piece, a miniscule budget, a cast of unknowns, and a troubled production – not to mention a heroine named … Baby. And yet it positively crackled, thanks to Eleanor Bergstein’s deeply personal script, crazy chemistry between leads Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze, and the ethereal gyrations of the late, great Swayze.
So how do you re-create that magic? The short answer is: You don’t. The long, much more painful answer is: You wait 30 years, you throw together a three-hour-long remake, and you put it on ABC – and then after even a cursory check of Twitter, you realize that you should not have even attempted it. This is one Baby that should have stayed in the corner.
Wayne Blair and Jessica Sharzer’s remake attempts to be all things to all people, and ends up being nothing to anybody. The 2017 made-for-TV Dirty Dancing manages to be both a grim, workmanlike re-creation of the original – some scenes are rehashed shot for shot – and also a vast extrapolation that bloats the original’s runtime by more than an hour. It’s also a musical (but only sorta), a melodrama about the decay of marriages, and a clumsy (if well-meaning) treatise on issues ranging from feminism to institutionalized racism.
Buried among all this is the original story: about Frances “Baby” Houseman (a wildly miscast Abigail Breslin), a teen who goes on vacation with her family to a 1960s Borscht Belt resort and experiences a psychosexual awakening while also learning the Mambo. But those unfamiliar with the original material would be forgiven for not following that thread, given how many other ones Sharzer’s rambling screenplay has attempted to weave in. Here are just a few of the moments that had us shouting “No!” at our TV screens while clutching our VHS copy of the original to our hearts.
1. The Framing Story
Confusingly enough, the Catskills-set tale begins with a helicopter shot of…the Manhattan skyline? It’s 1975 for some reason, and a bunch of hastily costumed extras are standing outside a Broadway theater that’s showing a sold-out production of something called Dirty Dancing: The Musical. And if that wasn’t “What the huh?” enough for you, Baby herself grabs an orchestra seat to watch, voiceover-ing to herself: “You never forget your first love. You carry it with you always.” And if she’d added …like a watermelon we could almost forgive this nonsense. But she does not, and it’s flashback time. Kellerman’s! 1963!
2. The Dirty Dancing Isn’t Dirty
The moment when the original Dirty Dancing blows wide open is when buttoned-up Baby finds herself inside a packed, sweaty staff party where Kellerman’s working classers are grinding against each other with impunity. In the remake, she encounters a largely empty room in which clean-cut choristers perform obviously choreographed dance moves with all the sexual charge of a church social. This is also our big intro to Johnny Castle, the bad-boy dance instructor who’ll steal Baby’s heart, played with put-upon exhaustion by Colt Prattes. This scene made us wonder if Kellerman’s had fallen prey to some kind of Westworld scenario in which chiseled robots dutifully performed the motions of carefree pleasure without actually experiencing it. Has anybody checked for a mysterious maze behind the dance studio?
3. It’s a Musical…Kinda?
Blair and Sharzer seemed to have half-decided to make Dirty Dancing a musical without fully committing. The remake features most of the Sixties and Eighties tunes from the original soundtrack, but made some of them sung by the actors and others played as incidental music. Case in point: Johnny sings the Contours’ “Do You Love Me” while gyrating at the party, but later dances mutely to a cover of Eric Carmen’s “Hungry Eyes” playing over the action. Make up your mind, movie! The sung-through parts add nothing to the movie, other than proving that ABC can do a “musical event” just like Fox and NBC can.
4. Too Many Subplots
Did we really need to know how Baby’s sister, Lisa, got the ukulele she plays in the talent show? Or how Baby got her iconic white dress? So very clearly not. The remake provides no shortage of side stories, most notably the tale of Mrs. Houseman (Debra Messing) and her frustration with her distant husband (Bruce Greenwood). We’re glad your working through some stuff, Marjorie, but it’s a tangent that’s given so much screen time that it threatens to engulf the main plot.
5. So Much for That Lift
Oscar nominee Abigail Breslin has many virtues as an actor, but dancing ability is not one. A good chunk of Dirty Dancing is a Baby-gets-better-at-Mambo montage, and in the original it’s fun to watch her go from awkward to smooth. In this one, she never improves – but everyone acts like she does. It hurts our hearts to watch Breslin and Prattes practice the most uncomfortable, splay-legged lifts in the history of dance in a pristine pond, pretending that anything graceful at all is happening. If nothing else, at least we get to stare at Johnny’s abs, which are pretty much the only well-formed thing in this entire movie.
6. So Much for That Sex Scene
Grey and Swayze famously hated working together, but their onscreen sparks were visible from space. The same can certainly not be said for Breslin and Prattes, who both look vaguely put out anytime they have to so much as smooch. The ook factor reaches its zenith in the iconic “Cry to Me” sex scene, which is cringingly restaged – from swirling dip to bare-chest caress – in a way that only emphasizes how little the actors seem to be comfortable making physical contact. We do indeed feel like cryin’.
7. Too Many Issues
With its sex positivity, strong-willed heroine and frank discussion of abortion, Bergstein’s original movie was a surprisingly feminist piece of cinema for its day. The remake attempts to bring that subtext to the fore, but in doing so undermines its own message. Baby 2.0 is reading The Feminine Mystique and dreaming of becoming a surgeon like her dad, sure; but Sharzer’s script also takes icky glee in slut-shaming an older female character (Katey Sagal) and is generally more prudish than the source material. The remake also attempts to touch on racism and sexual assault, but does both so glancingly that it feels cheap.
8. The Autotuned Covers
That this Dirty Dancing is tonally all over the map is no more obvious than in the millennialed-up versions of songs from the original soundtrack. We kinda feel like we’re at the Kellerman’s of old with straight-up covers like Lady Antebellum’s “Hey Baby” and Seal’s “Cry to Me.” But watching Baby learn to dance to Greyson Chance’s goopy electronic take on “Hungry Eyes,” or seeing Johnny drive away to Calum Scott’s over-produced “She’s Like the Wind” (originally sung on the soundtrack by Swayze himself) take us right out of the story. We get that ABC wanted to chart on iTunes, but come on. No one’s heart is bursting or breaking to this much autotuning.
9. We Are Not Having the Time of Our Lives
And it has come to this: the Kellerman’s talent show. Baby is sitting in her corner (reading The Bell Jar! Take it down a notch, Baby), missing Johnny. But does he coolly enter in the middle of a song like Swayze does? Oh no, my friends. “This is a summer I’ll always remember,” Mr. Kellerman declares from the stage. “A summer of family. A summer of friendship. A summer…” “…of LOVE!” Johnny declares, bursting into the room. Dude. For one thing, the Summer of Love isn’t happening for another four years. In this version, “I’ve Had the Time of My Life” becomes a full-cast musical number, which Johnny prefaces by declaring, in case you were confused, “I had the time of my life with you this summer.” And to our dismay, Baby still hasn’t nailed that lift.
10. What the Hell Was That Ending?
Just as we’re all dozing off because this thing has already been on for almost three hours, we’re back with future Baby in 1975, in the audience of that Broadway play that is confusingly also her life. Baby hangs around the theater afterwards to meet up with…Johnny! Who choreographed a musical, based on a book that Baby wrote about that one crazy summer at Kellerman’s! (So much for her becoming a surgeon, we guess?) Into this awkwardness enters Baby’s husband, who is not Johnny, and their child, and Johnny looks wistful, or maybe just confused as to how Dirty Dancing has managed to defy space-time and rip off La La Land. It’s an unnecessary, annoying coda to an unnecessary, annoying movie. And just when you think it’s over, Johnny says, “Hey. Keep on dancing.” We would prefer not to.