Lionsgate // 2004 // 86 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees (Retired) // August 17th, 2004
Katey: "Look at the way they feel the music!"
James: "They're feelin' it, all right."
Dirty Dancing was one of the surprise hits of 1987. A coming-of-age story set in 1963, it transcended its gauche title and found box office success due in large part to the dynamic dancing and the chemistry between Jennifer Grey's ingénue and Patrick Swayze's hunky dance instructor. Seventeen years later, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights revisits the formula with a story based on events in the life of coproducer and choreographer JoAnn Jansen. Set in 1958, Havana Nights is not a prequel to the first film but a companion piece: Featuring a different setting, different characters, and even a different style of dance, Havana Nights revisits the popular formula in a distinct way but leaves the basic framework intact.
The year is 1958, and Katey (Romola Garai, I Capture the Castle) is moving to Cuba with her parents (John Slattery, Mona Lisa Smile, and Sela Ward, The Day After Tomorrow) and little sister (Mika Boorem, Blue Crush). An intellectual, bookish young woman, Katey is unhappy to be leaving America in her senior year of high school and frets that being transplanted will diminish her chances of being accepted to a top-level college. Almost before she has settled in, however, she finds herself involved with two very different young men: self-satisfied James (Jonathan Jackson, Tuck Everlasting), son of her father's new boss, who is a bit too sure of his irresistibility, and Javier (Diego Luna, Frida), a scruffily charming waiter at the posh hotel where Katey's family now lives. A disastrous date with James throws Katey into Javier's path, with the result that Javier is fired from the hotel.
In an attempt to make amends for the loss of his job, Katey suggests that Javier partner her in a dance contest: The cash prize for placing first will ease the financial strain on his family, which has been struggling economically as well as emotionally since the death of Javier's revolutionary father. Katey's parents were once ballroom dancers, so she has some dancing experience, but the moves she has seen in Havana are a world away from the formal steps she is used to. As Javier teaches her to spice up her dancing, the two of them are drawn closer together...but it's a partnership that may spell trouble for both of them, especially with revolution in the air.
In one of the featurettes on this disc, director Guy Ferland describes what he calls the Dirty Dancing formula: a simple love story between two people who are polar opposites and find common ground first on the dance floor, then through an emotional connection. There's a bit more to the formula than this, since both the original Dirty Dancing and Havana Nights are stories of the coming of age of the heroine: As her sexuality is awakened, her consciousness is raised, so that she must confront the question of whether she will conform to her parents' expectations. In this respect the setting of Havana Nights -- Cuba on the verge of revolution -- is most appropriate, since it forces the heroine to leave her ivory tower and begin to learn about conditions that she has never before been aware of. When Havana Nights was released in theaters, some critics carped that the film paid too little attention to the Cuban revolution, but since we see the story through the eyes of our young and naïve heroine, it seems to me that it would have been unrealistic and forced to have developed this part of the film with more insight. Indeed, although Katey does gain awareness of Cubans' plight over the course of the story, she is, after all, a teenager in love: Even a revolution must take second priority, at best, to her first real romance. In this perspective, I suspect Havana Nights is more true to life than most critics would like to admit, but perhaps they have forgotten how self-absorbed first love and teenagehood are.
Even though 17 years have passed since DD was released, Havana Nights seems to assume that viewers are familiar enough with this formula (whether from Dirty Dancing or from other dance films, like Baz Luhrman's more innovative Strictly Ballroom) that there is no need to spend much time establishing motivation or developing characters. At a brief 86 minutes (not 105 minutes, as the case maintains), the film rockets along at a very brisk pace -- so brisk, indeed, that certain plot points are noted almost perfunctorily, and there are very few scenes where the pace slows down for us to catch a breath or mull over the story. Perhaps because of this drive to keep the story moving constantly, dialogue sometimes sounds glib and unnatural, establishing important developments with a few economical lines before we are hurried along to the next scene. The rapid succession of mostly short scenes makes the film feel a bit busy, which is not the same as energetic, but on the other hand this industrious pace and short running time mean that there isn't time for the movie to wear out its welcome. Like a summer fling, it's short but sweet and doesn't go on long enough to get wearisome.
A strong lead couple also holds the viewer's attention. Talented young Romola Garai takes a break from her more serious roles in British releases like I Capture the Castle and Daniel Deronda and assumes a perfect American accent as our heroine. Her Katey is fresh, innocent, and endearingly vulnerable in this alien setting, but she also has courage and strength. I like the fact that in this film, unlike the original, the heroine has something to contribute to the dancing partnership -- that is, her experience in formal ballroom dancing -- so that her rapport with the hero seems to be closer to a partnership than the relationship of Galatea to Pygmalion. Just as Katey is beginning to question her parents' values, Javier, too, is struggling with family issues and the shadow of his father, so in this way also he and Katey are more evenly partnered than were Baby and Johnny in Dirty Dancing. Diego Luna is a strong casting choice as the sexy young ragamuffin who awakens Katey's passion and teaches her to get in touch with her body; Luna's sleepy-eyed charm makes him a more boyish character than Swayze's Johnny, but he's hard to resist. As hero and heroine, he and Garai seem well matched and comfortable with each other -- so much so, in fact, that their relationship seems to be characterized less by passion than by affection. Thus, the tone they set is a bit cuddlier and less electric than one might expect, but there's a sweetness to the relationship that adds to the nostalgic appeal of this story of first love.
Of the solid cast of supporting characters, Sela Ward is particularly enjoyable as Katey's mother, who is portrayed with unusual depth for a character who seems at first to be merely an obstacle to Katey's every desire. (In some of the deleted scenes, she is granted still more depth and development, so it's a shame that these scenes didn't make the final cut.) And in a graceful casting move, Patrick Swayze himself appears as the hotel dance instructor, who helps Katey overcome some of her inhibitions and learn to trust her new partner. Swayze is looking a little craggy around the face these days, but his dancing is still a sinuous marvel to behold; his presence on screen reminds us why the original Dirty Dancing was so compelling. Even though he has aged, his presence provides an enjoyable whiff of the first film as he mentors Katey. We even get to see JoAnn Jansen herself show off her footwork in a brief dancing cameo appearance with Swayze.
The dancing and the music are, of course, driving elements in the film, and both are strong overall, with only a few weak areas. The high-energy, blood-pumping Afro-Cuban dance music that infuses the film keeps the mood both sultry and exhilarating. The score by Simply Red's Heitor Pereira is enhanced with songs by different artists, which include some anachronistic choices like Mya, Christina Aguilera, and the Black Eyed Peas. The decision to mingle historically accurate music with a more modern flavor will annoy some viewers, while it will make others -- particularly, I imagine, the teen target audience -- feel more at home.
Like the music, the dance throughout the film is a blend of different styles. Jansen's choreography establishes a highly sexual element to the dancing, which understandably dazzles white-bread Katey. Neither Luna nor Garai brought dance experience to the film, so the convincing and fluid quality of their dancing together is a compliment to their weeks of practice and to the tutelage of choreographer Jansen. Nonetheless, I note that much of their dancing is partially masked by crowds of dancers, editing cuts, or even, in one prominent case, an early interruption in their dance, so that we get an impression of strong dancing without witnessing enough to destroy that illusion. At first I assumed that their dancing was largely composed in the editing room and that this was the reason that they don't appear in the two multi-angle dance sequences featured among the disc extras. However, the feature commentary indicates that Garai and Luna actually learned, and performed, a continuous four-minute number, so it really is a pity that their hard work isn't adequately represented on the disc in a multi-angle sequence.
Because of the prominence of music in the film, it's nice to note that audiovisual quality for this release is quite strong. The music is bold and clear, yet the dialogue is always easily discernible. Lions Gate has considerately offered both a 5.1 and a 2.0 option, so that even those without a surround system can appreciate the robust quality of the music. The visual transfer isn't always as sharp as I would expect for such a recent film; it's almost as if some scenes were given a faint nostalgic haze. Nevertheless, the color is strong and true, both in the bright sunlit scenes and the dimness of the dance club La Rosa Negra. Since the film gains appeal through its colorful costumes and scenery (with Puerto Rico standing in for Havana), visuals are particularly important, and I'm pleased to report that overall it's a handsome transfer, with no obvious flaws.
The extras for the film are quite generous for a standard single-disc edition. The feature commentary by Jansen and producer Sarah Green is laid-back but inviting, offering tidbits about the filming process and also insight into Jansen's real-life experiences from which the story was crafted. We also learn of the careful attention to detail that characterized the film, which includes presenting dialogue between Cuban characters in subtitled Spanish, a classy decision that evidently worried the studio until test audiences responded favorably. Jansen and Green also point out places where Havana Nights slips in deliberate echoes of the first film's music and choreography. This kind of background information enriched my appreciation of the film; it may still be just a fluffy entertainment, but it was evidently made with care and love, and that increases its appeal.
Likewise, behind-the-scenes featurettes like the 24-minute "Inside Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights" and the 11-minute "Baila! A Dance Piece" give us a glimpse of the effort and dedication that went into production, from dance training and rehearsals to location shooting, costume construction, and the casting of local musicians. There are no less than 10 deleted and extended scenes, and although these total only 12 minutes of footage, they often deepen our understanding of the characters and the action. Although video quality is sometimes a bit murky in these clips, their inclusion is welcome. A music video for the spicy song "Guajira (I Love U 2 Much)" allows us to revel in the musical atmosphere a bit longer. Two multi-angle dance sequences feature professional dancers who appear in the film as contest entrants; although, as I noted earlier, the omission of Garai and Luna from these dance sequences is a disappointment, they have great appeal for dance fans. Finally, an oddly inappropriate assortment of trailers rounds out the extras.
Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights may be only a brightly colored, well-acted B movie, but it is a very pleasant one, and it's short enough not to become tiresome. Even though it's not in the same league as other, similarly themed films like Strictly Ballroom and Shall We Dance?, it still has enough charm and sincerity to make it agreeable viewing. The audience that will enjoy this film most is probably going to be viewers who are too young to have seen the original Dirty Dancing at the time of its release, but older viewers who wish to see Swayze dance again should definitely give this a rental.
The time of your life? Probably not. But if you are drawn to this formula and don't expect Academy Award material, you should enjoy yourself -- and you'll probably also find yourself wanting to hit the dance floor afterward.
I know I shouldn't allow moves like that in the courtroom, but there's something strangely hypnotic about all those gyrating hips...all right, you've convinced me. Not guilty!
Review content copyright © 2004 Amanda DeWees; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 86 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Commentary by Producer Sarah Green and Choreographer-Coproducer JoAnn Jansen
* Deleted and Extended Scenes
* "Inside Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights" Featurette
* "Baila! A Dance Piece" Featurette
* Multi-Angle Dance Sequences
* Music Video: "Guajira (I Love U 2 Much)" by Yerba Buena