So Bad It’s Good: ‘Dirty Dancing’ and the Limits of Nostalgia

Bad movies are not a simple matter. There are nearly as many categories of terrible movies as there are for great ones: insultingly stupid (Batman & Robin), unintentionally funny (Birdemic), unintentionally, painfully unfunny (White Chicks), so bad they’re depressing (Transformers), and so on. But the most rewarding terrible movies are those we know as “so bad they’re good” — entertaining in their sheer incompetence, best braved in numbers, where the ham-fisted dramatics and tin-eared dialogue become fodder for years of random quotes and inside jokes. And in this spirit, Flavorwire brings you July’s edition of our monthly So Bad It’s Good feature: the inexplicably iconic 1987 hit Dirty Dancing.

When I was in the seventh grade, our choir sang a medley of the songs from Dirty Dancing, the previous year’s surprise sleeper smash. I remember this little factoid primarily because of a ridiculous footnote: the sheet music offered up an alternative chorus for “Hungry Eyes,” which reimagined the song as “Loving Eyes,” in case the idea of hungry eyes was too racy for the school choir demo. But on reflection, this also speaks to how completely this low-budget independent film permeated the culture. It still does; recreating “the lift” was a key moment in Crazy Stupid Love, and even people who haven’t seen Dirty Dancing will tell you how nobody puts Baby in a corner.

All of which is pretty impressive, since, by most reasonable standards, Dirty Dancing is a terrible movie: a dopey, cliché-ridden, anachronistic, woefully predictable across-the-tracks romance. Set in the summer of 1963, which we all know was the last summer Before America Lost Its Innocence (such broad indicators as Freedom Riders and the Peace Corps are occasionally trotted out like buzzwords), Eleanor Bergstein’s script takes Frances “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey) and her family to Kellerman’s resort for a summer retreat where lives are changed and lessons are learned.

Kellerman’s is clearly in the Catskills, but one of the oddest elements of Dirty Dancing is the weird way it scrubs all traces of ethnicity out of the story; the Jewish faith of the Housemans and most of the guests at Kellerman’s is never mentioned in any way, nor is the goyishness of Baby’s eventual beau Johnny (Patrick Swayze). By my count, the film features a) Kellerman himself using the word “schlep”; b) Baby’s dad (Jerry Orbach) sneering, “I don’t want you to have anything to do with those people again”; and c) Johnny informing Baby, “I know these people. They’re rich and they’re mean.” That’s it! As Roger Ebert noted in his one-star review (one of the film’s few major negative notices), “I guess people who care about such things are supposed to be able to read between the lines, and the great unwashed masses of American moviegoers are condemned to think the old man doesn’t like Swayze’s dirty dancing.”

Anyway, the plot (as you probably know from one of its thousands of Sunday afternoon airings on TBS) finds Baby drawn to the taboo world of the resort’s dance kids, who get together after hours to listen to R&B music and bump and grind. But alas, said bump-and-grinding resulted in Johnny’s dance partner Penny (Cynthia Rhodes, familiar from such ‘80s touchstones as Stayin’ Alive, Flashdance, and marrying Richard Marx) getting knocked up by waiter Robbie (Max Cantor), a villain so cartoonish, he’s seen handing Baby an Ayn Rand paperback.

So Baby the helper gets money from her daddy to get Penny out of trouble and volunteers to fill in for Penny on a big dancing job with Johnny at another hotel, timed oh-so-unfortunately for the same night the back-alley abortionist is in town. Baby turns out to be a quick study — one day of dancing across a bridge and she’s pretty much Ginger Rogers — but when they return to Kellerman’s, Penny’s in bad shape, so Baby has to get her dad to come help out, and of course he thinks Johnny’s the father, which Johnny consistently refuses to set him straight on. Later that night, Johnny and Baby finally consummate their sweat-soaked rehearsal dance chemistry, because nothing gets you in the mood for sex like witnessing the aftermath of a botched abortion.

Of course, this forbidden love cannot be — especially after Johnny becomes the prime suspect in a series of wallet thefts (actual subplot!), and his alibi is an overnight rendezvous with Baby. She owns up to get him out of trouble, and after a teary lakeside confrontation with dear ol’ dad (its staging oddly reminiscent of Michael and Fredo’s last scene in Godfather II), she discovers Johnny is getting fired anyway, for fraternization. Her character arc had previously been dramatized by the transition from boxy virgin cardigans to crop tops; now she’s gone from Peace Corps-bound idealist to tough, cynical broad. After one more encounter with dad in which he won’t just come out and say he didn’t knock up Penny, Johnny hits the road, certain to never, ever return… if you’ve never seen a movie before.

Following a brazenly homoerotic encounter between Baby and her sister that may be the single weirdest scene in a movie of the 1980s — and yes, I’m including Eraserhead — we go to the big end-of-summer talent show. Kellerman commiserates with his bandleader about how “it all seems to be changing! It’s all slipping away!”; it’s a speech that could only have been clangier if he ended it with, “Sure hope nobody shoots the president!” And then Johnny (shocker of shockers) returns, marches up to the Houseman table, and utters the immortal corner line. (Question: Is it possible Baby chose that seat herself? Or perhaps it was an assigned seating situation? Point is, Johnny’s sure quick to jump to conclusions about her parents’ nefarious intentions w/r/t table settings.)

At any rate, up they go for the big end-of-movie dance number, where Baby finally struts her stuff in front of her parents, her father finally realizes Robbie knocked up Penny, Tony Award-winning A Chorus Line star Kelly Bishop (underused throughout as Baby’s mom) gets to dance for about seven seconds of screen time, and Baby and Johnny, at long last, manage to pull off “the lift.”

All that’s fine; it’s a crowd-pleasing sequence, and — here and throughout the movie — the dancing is top-notch. But can we talk about the music? The song our heroes perform to is eventual Oscar winner “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life”; earlier, they rehearse to “Hungry Eyes.” Both songs, with their drum machines, synth tracks, and utter soullessness, could not sound more like 1987 if they included lyrics about Baby Jessica and Black Monday. It’s one thing to trot out the soundtrack’s other quintessentially ‘80s tracks (like Zappacosta’s goofy “Overload” and Swayze’s own, hilariously overwrought “She’s Like the Wind” ) as montage and background accompaniment; songs like these are source music, played as part of the narrative, with no one so much as batting an eyelid over how they sound fuck-all like The Contours, Solomon Burke, Mickey & Sylvia, or any of the other vintage tracks from the (otherwise well-curated) soundtrack. But hey, you can’t blame them for farming out the music for the climax; it’s not like there were any good songs from that period to choose from.

I’m being deliberately obtuse, of course; “The Time of My Life” and “Hungry Eyes” and the rest of them are in the movie so they could create a bestselling soundtrack, a market-driver of a cinematic era whose time has thankfully passed. But it worked; the album (and its follow-up) went multi-platinum, and helped keep the movie in theaters well past its original August release date — a month when, then and now, audiences are kind of starving — and into, no kidding, January of the following year. It debuted modestly (fourth place for the weekend, behind Stakeout, Born in East LA, and Can’t Buy Me Love), but was in it for the long haul, eventually grossing $63 million domestic and $150 million worldwide on a $6 million budget.

But it came at the end of a summer — and towards the end of a decade — so bereft of good movies that even a bad one like this could make a mint; people liked the music and liked the ending, and that Patrick Swayze, he sure can dance! And because it was one of the first real mega-hits of the VHS era (the first title to move over a million tapes, in fact), it was viewed again and again, its clichés turning into comfort food.

This is a phenomenon that’s not uncommon when it comes to movie lovers of a certain age and a number of inexplicably idolized titles of the period. In I Lost it at the Video Store, Tom Roston’s forthcoming oral history of the video store era as told by the filmmakers it impacted, Joe Swanberg pretty much sums it up: “Unfortunately, what happens to my generation is, we don’t just watch Breakfast Club two times while it’s in movie theaters. We watch Breakfast Club 69 times between the age of 12 and 25, and we convince ourselves The Breakfast Club is a genius movie. You have this wrapped up nostalgia and regurgitation and overconsumption of mediocre shit.”

Dirty Dancing has its virtues — the chemistry of the leads, the sensuality of their two-scenes, the vintage tracks — and it’s penetrated popular culture to such a degree that it’s an enjoyable enough watch, even for a cynic like me. But it’s a movie best seen through the hazy amber filter of ‘80s nostalgia, and if you’re watching it without those rose-colored glasses on, God help you.

Dirty Dancing is streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime.