That Hollywood has gone overboard with remakes is no surprise. But when it comes to re-booting 1987’s beloved coming of age film Dirty Dancing — as Lionsgate Films and director Kenny Ortega are planning to do — it’s not just as simple as reading the directions on the tin. I mean, I remember not being allowed to watch the film based on the title alone… I actually listened to my brother watch it on TV, with my ear pressed to my bedroom wall. But when I got a little older and saw the movie from start to finish, I was shocked by how dirty it wasn’t. Unlike Snakes on a Plane or Cowboys & Aliens, the title isn’t really indicative of all that the movie covers… and not acknowledging that will make a new Dirty Dancing no more effective than another Step Up sequel.
We’ve already had dozens of movies about bad boys and good girls being brought together by dance, as well as good boys and bad girls: all of the aforementioned Step Up films, the brief craze for lambada movies in the ’90s, the poorly conceived Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, and, of course, Footloose and its upcoming, completely unnecessary, remake. Shouldn’t the latter be an indicator of how not to mess with a good thing?
The original Footloose took place in a time and a place that doesn’t really exist anymore beyond the smallest of small towns. Pre-Internet, pre-cell phone… it was a setting where restless, liberal Ren could come in from Chicago and be “that McCormack boy,” much to Reverend Shaw Moore’s dismay. Viewers also got to be as surprised as Ren that Ariel was such a wild woman. Who would be surprised about that now, when the naughty preacher’s daughter has become a cliché? (And, oh, the soundtrack was glorious!) Similarly, Dirty Dancing has a distinct sense of not only place and time, but also political context.
“That was the summer of 1963 – when everybody called me Baby, and it didn’t occur to me to mind. That was before President Kennedy was shot, before the Beatles came, when I couldn’t wait to join the Peace Corps, and I thought I’d never find a guy as great as my dad. That was the summer we went to Kellerman’s.”
The Catskills resort culture is all but dead now, but it was a huge thing in the ’60s and ’70s, particularly for well-to-do Jewish families like the Housemans. Far from being a sheltered good girl wooed away by bad boy dance instructor Johnny Castle, Baby is actually privileged in a way that he isn’t. She might carry a watermelon or two, but she’s absolutely in the position to call the shots with Johnny — and she does! (“Dance with me.” “What, here?”)
Baby is upwardly mobile, educated, planning to go to college, and brash enough to want to join the Peace Corps and needle her sister about “monks burning themselves in protest.” That’s an ideology that’s foreign to most people now, because we don’t have the backdrop of the growing conflict in Vietnam. And then there’s abortion. The basic thrust of the film — Baby needing to learn how to dance — hinges upon Penny needing a night off to get an illegal, back alley abortion because she “got knocked up by Robbie the creep.” How is a modern remake going to swing that? By coming up with some flimsy excuse for Penny to drop out? As I joked to a friend, “We need someone to do my routine at the Sheldrake because Robbie gave me chlamydia” just doesn’t have the same sense of urgency!
In the late ’80s, all of the things that Dirty Dancing touched upon — women’s sexuality, reproductive rights, class privilege — had context. Teenagers at the time had been born while Vietnam was still going on, were growing up during the Cold War and, on some level, got what was being talked about in Dirty Dancing even though it took place in 1963. There’s a lot of 1980s angst and navel-gazing nostalgia that threads through the narrative. I hate to whip out the ol’ “kids today,” but I’m going to. I’m not sure kids today give a rat’s ass. And Hollywood film studios certainly don’t. All they see when they look at Dirty Dancing is a hot soundtrack, some bumping and grinding, and dollar signs.
Can the movie be remade? Of course. Throw enough money into the budget, cast enough pretty people, and you’ve got a film. But why bother? Not only is it going to be missing all the subtle social commentary, but it’s also not going to have the magic. When the film came out, and in the slumber party-laden years afterwards, girls and boys alike instantly hit puberty watching Patrick Swayze own that dance floor. But kids today (there, I said it again) are so much more savvy than we were. The sensuality of Baby and Johnny dancing to “Cry To Me” or crawling across the floor teasingly to Mickey & Sylvia, isn’t going to have any meaning, would come off as downright shlock-y… so those scenes will have to be rewritten to be more overt… or Disneyfied down to a level where there’s no sensuality at all. Either option is, frankly, horrifying.
The whole idea of a Dirty Dancing remake is horrifying. So maybe Hollywood should just put their pickle on everybody’s plate and leave the hard stuff to the original.