Our reviews of Dirty Dancing: 20th Anniversary Edition (published May 14th, 2007), Dirty Dancing Collection (Blu-ray) (published May 30th, 2012), Dirty Dancing: Limited Keepsake Edition (Blu-ray) (published May 10th, 2010), Dirty Dancing: Limited Keepsake Edition (published May 4th, 2010), and Dirty Dancing: Official Dance Workout (published January 2nd, 2009) are also available.
I've had the time of my life. It's the truth.
A small film that wasn't expected to be anything fabulous, Dirty Dancing defied the odds to become both a box office smash and part of popular culture in 1987. The film is actually much better than people think, and its popularity is still going strong 16 years later.
Artisan, in an attempt to cash in on the upcoming sequel, has reissued the original Dirty Dancing in a new two-disc set. Only this review will be able to tell whether or not this edition is truly Ultimate.
Facts of the Case
Seventeen-year old Frances "Baby" Houseman (Jennifer Grey, Ferris Bueller's Day Off) accompanies her family on vacation to a Catskills resort in the summer of 1963. Things are routine until she spots the dance instructor hired by the resort for entertainment purposes: Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze, Ghost). One night, Baby follows Johnny to his lair, where a new style of dancing intrigues her. When Johnny's regular dance partner Penny is sidelined by an unwanted pregnancy, Baby is recruited to take her place. After an extended training period, Johnny and Baby fall in love.
That love is tested after Baby's physician father (Jerry Orbach, Law and Order) assumes Johnny is the father of Penny's aborted baby, after he's called upon to treat her for complications. Can Johnny and Baby's romance overcome this difficult dilemma, or will it all end then and there?
Dance films were in vogue in the 1980s. In that decade, we were "treated" to such films as Breakin' (1983), Breakin 2: Electric Boogaloo (1984), Body Rock (1984), Fast Forward (1985), and Dancers (1987). All of these films have one thing in common: they're terrible. So common sense would ask: why should a low-budget film entitled Dirty Dancing be any different?
Dear readers, Dirty Dancing turns out to be the real thing. It's one of the few dance pictures made in contemporary times that doesn't insult the intelligence of the audience. It's honest and entertaining, something few Hollywood films are these days. What makes Dirty Dancing work while others failed is the element of reality on all levels. Eleanor Bergstein's screenplay, culled from her own life experience, is appealing while feeling truthful at all times. As this film and the earlier It's My Turn demonstrate, Bergstein has a gift for creating well-drawn, three-dimensional characters.
The acting is surprisingly strong and sure-footed for a film like this. Patrick Swayze, the best American dancer since Gene Kelly, can also act, much to the surprise of many. His Johnny is a loner, but a sensitive soul behind his hard-boiled attitude. Swayze hits all the right notes with his performance. His dancing is simply sensational. It's a shame that he came along right as the movie musical was officially pronounced dead. Lord only knows what else he would have done had the genre been alive and kicking. Jennifer Grey, in her first leading role of note, is excellent as Baby, capturing the naïveté and vulnerability of a teenage girl undergoing the transitional summer between adolescence and adulthood. She has strong chemistry with Swayze, which helps sell the romantic aspects of the film. Plus, Grey proves to be a superb dancer, much better than anyone expected at the time. One might be tempted to say she has rarely given a performance this good since, but in her own low-key way, Grey has spent the last 17 years doing interesting, unusual work, including playing herself in the unfairly maligned ABC sitcom It's Like, You Know… Swayze and Grey are admirably supported by a top notch cast, including the always reliable Jerry Orbach (Prince of the City, Crimes and Misdemeanors), Cynthia Rhodes (Stayin' Alive), and Jack Weston (Wait Until Dark, The Longshot).
But the main attraction of Dirty Dancing is the dancing. Choreographed by Kenny Ortega and directed by ballet expert Emile Ardolino, the filmmakers understand that successful screen dancing involves photographing the entire body, rather than just individual body parts (although there are some shots like that here and there in the movie). A wise move both men made was to let the dancing speak for itself, instead of jazzing it up with theatrical gimmicks and flashy camerawork. The dance sequences are simply and honestly presented and filmed. The editing perfectly fits the stylishly photographed visuals to the terrific song score, made up of vintage classics and newly written originals.
Dirty Dancing has been issued on DVD twice before, most recently the single disc Collectors Edition in 2002. The transfer for the Ultimate Edition is an improvement, but not by much. For starters, the 1.85:1 widescreen transfer has been given anamorphic enhancement. However, the "newly remastered image" boasted on the keep case is a joke. It's pretty much the same transfer used for the previous edition. The image is often grainy, sometimes uncomfortably so. A few scenes look clean and crisp, but there are not enough of them. Some defects and blemishes do pop up—again, more than I would have liked. It's not a bad transfer for what it is, a low-budget effort. However, considering this film was given a restoration six years ago, it shouldn't look this soft.
Much better is the sound. The DTS Surround track sounds breathtaking through the speakers. There's a lot of music in the film, from the period as well as newly penned material. It all sounds unbelievably vibrant in DTS, as if the musicians are performing live in your family room. Dialogue is crystal clear; a surprise considering it often sounded muddy on previous home video releases. For those of you whose players and/or systems cannot support DTS, Artisan also offers the sound in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround or the original 2.0 mono mix. Both sound great as well. Artisan has done incredible work here and deserves praise.
This two-disc set is loaded with extra content. Disc one begins with a newly filmed introduction by Jennifer Grey. It's kind of impersonal and all too brief, especially after superior ones in The Boy Who Could Fly and Giant. You can skip this if you wish.
Two commentary tracks are offered. The first, by writer/co-producer Eleanor Bergstein, was originally featured in the 2000 Special Edition. This is an excellent track, loaded with information and personal anecdotes about the film's production and gestation. The second is a group commentary, featuring cinematographer Jeffrey Jur (Panic), choreographer Kenny Ortega (Newsies), assistant choreographer Miranda Garrison, production designer David Chapman and costume designer Hilary Rosenfeld. All participants were recorded separately, with the results spliced together into this single track. It's interesting in spots and deathly dull in others. It's worth a listen at least once, but it's the Bergstein track you will be listening to over and over again. It's just plain fun.
Several interviews are included, with Grey, Bergstein, Ortega, and Garrison among the participants. The most valuable item is the Grey interview, since it contains information you haven't already heard in the commentary tracks. The others basically repeat comments presented elsewhere. Very little is actually new.
Jennifer Grey's screen test is next. All you aspiring actors out there should watch this to get an idea of what a screen test is like. Emile Ardolino: A Tribute is exactly what it says. His co-workers and friends give testimonials about the late director, who died of AIDS in 1993. Both are worth watching.
The biggest and best extra is Dirty Dancing: Live in Concert. A few months after the film took off at the box office, a stage version was mounted for Broadway and touring purposes. Cameras captured a 1988 performance, previously available as an out-of-print DVD released in 1998 and also included in the 2002 Collector's Edition. This transfer, presented in full-frame, is superior to its previous incarnations. The 90-minute concert is loaded with great dancing and music. The performers work hard and deliver a satisfying performance.
Music videos for the three hit singles spawned by the highly popular soundtrack album are featured, all in full screen. Each previously appeared on the 2002 Collector's Edition. "I've Had The Time of My Life" (winner of the Best Song Oscar in 1988), "Hungry Eyes," and "She's Like the Wind" (a chart hit for Patrick Swayze) are all great songs (yes, I'm being serious) that still hold up nicely.
Several theatrical trailers, including those created for the original 1987 theatrical release and the 1997 10th Anniversary re-release, are included. All in full frame and in surprisingly good shape. It's interesting to see the difference box office numbers can make in a marketing approach.
A trivia game, a sneak peek at the upcoming Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights sequel, and several well-hidden Easter Eggs round out the set. What a package!
The Rebuttal Witnesses
What? No Patrick Swayze? What about Jerry Orbach? Or even Cynthia Rhodes? Why are they absent from the supplements on the Ultimate Edition? It's perplexing when you take into account that they have all been more than willing to discuss their participation in this now classic film.
Also, there was an excellent E! True Hollywood Story installment that went into great detail about the film. Why not license the program for inclusion in this set? E! has licensed material for other studios before.
It's questions like these that make me wonder whether being a critic is all it's cracked up to be.
The $19.99 retail price is reasonable enough to merit a double dip. The anamorphic transfer isn't as good as it could be, but if you have to choose between the single disc Special Edition that sells for $9.99 but includes fewer features, the choice is simple. The Ultimate Edition is the only choice for the true Dirty Dancing aficionado.
Artisan is given probation for doing a half-assed job on a film that has become a classic staple of '80s cinema. What they have done right, they have done very well. As for the video transfer, they need to pick up the ball.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Writer/Producer Eleanor Bergstein
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