Here’s a thought experiment. Take any film you love, in any genre — “Star Wars: A New Hope,” “Eraserhead,” “9 to 5,” whatever — and imagine it reshot, nearly scene-for-scene, with a cast of new actors inhabiting the exact same story. Same location, same era, same characters, and frequently, even the same dialogue. Is it wide-eyed homage or larceny? Let’s add a confounding element: The only thing that’s changed is that the new version is bloated with seven or eight slick musical numbers, where the characters suddenly start singing the lyrics to the well-known songs that make up the soundtrack. Oh, and one of the characters solves racism. Now how do you feel about it?
There is not enough space here to fully engage with what is so lovely about the 1987 film “Dirty Dancing,” an unconventional, gritty, sexy dance-romance that has become one of the most beloved films of the ‘80s. The film, starring Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze, more or less stages a meet-cute around a botched abortion, and it doesn’t stop there; set at an idyllic Jewish resort in the Catskills, the film grapples with class, coming-of-age and feminism as much as it grapples with sweaty thighs and tight spandex. It’s a hot, sexy, synth-heavy movie, and Swayze and Grey have white-hot chemistry that contrasts nicely with the measured dignity of her character Baby’s relationship with her beloved father (Jerry Orbach). And you could watch it and enjoy it for none of those reasons, because the dancing — a hornier take on ballroom — is fantastic fun.
And yet Hollywood’s headlong passion for plucking beloved pieces of pop culture out of the past and polishing them with a slick sheen of mediocre nostalgia has claimed even this raw, unpolished gem: “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 runtime, 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.
This sloppy approach to the original’s finest details crops up again and again. In the original, Kelly Bishop’s performance as Marjorie Housman, Baby’s mother, tells an almost completely silent story of thwarted passions that is given voice only at the very end. In the remake, Debra Messing plays an expanded Marjorie that lays bare any possible subtext to the character. Messing isn’t bad, but it feels like an unnecessary symphony when the grace note sufficed. Similarly, Lisa (Sarah Hyland) is a brighter, kinder older sister, who reaches out to one of the African-American musicians to strike up an unlikely friendship. It’s sweet — well, it’s saccharine. Wasn’t it a little more fun, and rather more realistic, when instead of conquering race relations in her spare time, she just kinda sucked?
Indeed, it’s a little troubling that while the “Dirty Dancing” remake goes out of its way to solve racism, it also eliminates the Kellerman resort’s quintessential Jewishness from the narrative. Marjorie and Vivian (Katey Sagal) have a conversation about giving up things for Lent that doesn’t sound very secular Jewish at all. To its credit, the film does not gloss over some spiky details of the original — the abortion plot that is central to “Dirty Dancing,” or Johnny and Baby’s sexual relationship. And there were casting decisions that worked well: Penny is played with surprising grace by the multitalented Nicole Scherzinger; Sagal is the best Vivian Pressman we could have hoped for; and Messing and Bruce Greenwood make for a realistic couple.
But for a film that is refreshing in how little artifice it presents to the audience, the “Dirty Dancing” remake is far too glossy. Where the original traded in discomfort, attraction, and heat, the remake is markedly safer and more sterile — like a frosty mirror held up to the original. And without giving anything away, it’s difficult to imagine how fans of the original will not be incensed by the ending of the remake, which tacks on an ill-conceived epilogue that negates most of the power of the preceding narrative. It is hard to find an argument for watching this production over the original. And given how much trouble it was to produce this remake — a six-year process, all told — maybe it’s worth asking if every story needs to be rebooted, remade, or retold for the TV audience.