Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights

(aka Dirty Dancing 2, Guy Ferland, USA, 2004)


"Where is the Revolution tonight? On the dance floor?"

It is rare to hear any political revolution discussed in a mainstream American entertainment – and rarer still to hear it discussed in a musical. But that is what the sequel to Dirty Dancing – which in some countries lost its original subtitle, Havana Nights, and gained a number "2" – is all about.

Because this film was so unsuccessful and derided in America, it has scarcely been afforded a release elsewhere. This is a pity because Dirty Dancing 2, while far from perfect, is a highly intriguing object, and its joyous passages of movement, music and colour are best savoured on the big screen. It in fact improves on repeat viewings.

Many filmgoers may be unaware that the creative team behind the project is Tarantino‘s producer Lawrence Bender and the talented writer-director Boaz Yakin (Fresh [1994], Remember the Titans [2000]), who worked on the script. Directing duties are handled by Guy Ferland, who has made several interesting and ambitious films including Telling Lies in America (1997); his staging work here can be superb, and it meshes dynamically with the sometimes very brisk editing by Luis Colina (Another Day in Paradise [1998]) and Scot Richter. Indeed, this is one of the few musicals in recent years where the kinetic editing follows and enhances – rather than obliterating – the rhythms and moves of the dance.

This is an ingenious response to the long-mooted prospect of a Dirty Dancing (1987) sequel. As a fan of that film, I am happy to report that what was most novel in it – teenage characters with fierce ethical and political values – is retained and enhanced here. (I also note that what was most weird on the ears in the first film – the modernising of recent but still "period" music – has become exponentially weirder here.) And the touching aspects of the original, especially the depiction of the parent-daughter relations, are still highly affecting.

The setting is Cuba on the eve of Castro’s revolution, just as Batista is about to be overthrown. The people are discontented, and more than a little contemptuous of the American tourists who blow in and enjoy the good life, such as the family of young Katey (Romolo Garai).

But Katey herself is unhappy with her complacent, hypocritical companions, and so gravitates towards the struggling, working class Javier (the superb Diego Luna from Y Tu Mamá También [2001]). Their relationship begins tensely but – in the time-honoured way of the musical genre – a rapprochement is figured out when they learn to combine their respective dance styles in the hope of winning a competition.

Dirty Dancing 2 is, on the dramatic plane, not as well constructed or as emotionally strong as the original Dirty Dancing. Many of the same personal and family issues are present, but Garai is not quite as captivating (or, initially, as lovably clunky) as Jennifer Grey. Patrick Swayze is back in a small part as a wise and helpful dance teacher, but one absolutely essential ingredient – the intense sexiness of intimate dancing – is nervously downplayed.

This would seem impossible in a film that shows so much Cuban dancing. But the script works overtime to assure us that dance can mean everything – being at one with nature, being anything you want to be – except lovemaking. Nonetheless, the erotic, lyrical charge repressed on the movie’s surface returns in intoxicating scenes like the one in which Katey and Javier dance in front of a curtain upon which footage of Katey’s parents dancing is projected.

But this film has one breathtaking moment that has no equivalent in the original Dirty Dancing. That movie built up to an impossible, dexterous movement (the leap) on the dance floor. Here that highpoint is dramatically interrupted – by the boisterous revolution happening out on the streets (a device reminiscent of Bertolucci’s The Dreamers [2003]).

Where does a Hollywood entertainment go from there? This one, predictably, loses its nerve and falls apart. The film cannot bring itself to support Socialism at its most utopian summit of possibility and collective hope. The hit song from the original is reprised on the soundtrack to quickly remind us: all this sexy, political intoxication may have been the "time of your life", but now it’s over, and dull, white-bread American reality must recommence. (Also elided in this process is, of course, any hint of the US Foreign Policy toward Cuba under Castro to come.)

Happily, the memory of the senses is not so easily quelled – and films like Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights exist more for the thrills along the way than for their final, dreary destination.

© Adrian Martin May 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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