Dirty Dancing is a great little film, but it has one massive huge annoying flaw that bothered me a great deal until I was able to put it behind me. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
I was listening to episode #98 of TOFOP the other day. For the uninitiated, TOFOP is a podcast hosted by Australian comedian Wil Anderson & actor Charlie Clausen. I’m not going to recap it here, but just go subscribe to it – it’s fantastic.
In the latter half of the episode, Charlie raised a glaring issue from the 1987 romance/drama film Dirty Dancing that used to bug the crap out of me. It’s been on my list of things to write a pointless rambling blog post about for a while, so I thought while it’s fresh in my mind I’d write it all down. Come on a journey with me into the pedantic…
The problem I have is with Dirty Dancing‘s musical score – or more specifically with the musical score in one scene. The film is set in the summer of 1963, and for the vast majority of the film the music is contemporary to that era. We open with a montage of slow-motion dancing set to The Ronettes “Be My Baby”, released 1963 – so far so good! Then as we kick into the narrative, The Four Seasons’ “Big Girls Don’t Cry” – from 1962.
All is well with the world at this point, and the film’s soundtrack proceeds broadly along these well-trod period-drama lines.
Yes, there are a few weird 80s music incursions: Zappacosta’s “Overload”, Swayze’s own “She’s Like the Wind”… but these all appear as underscore, or extradiegetic music (pardon the jargon) – they’re outside the story. They’re not for the characters, they’re for the people watching the film in 1987. Sure, they still feel a bit like they don’t quite fit the authentic early-60s tone that’s been set up, but we can accept them in the same way that we accept – say – Alan Silvestri’s bombastic score for Back to the Future, even though we can plainly see there’s not a symphony orchestra following Marty around.
So far so good.
In the final scene though – the big payoff – we get to a musical anachronism that can’t be explained away with fancy university words like “extradiegetic”. Here it is:
Did you spot it?
White-T-shirt guy takes the ’45 out of the sleeve, puts it on the turntable, places the needle on the record. Johnny Castle looks out at Baby on the stage as the distinctive glassy tones of the Yamaha DX7 EPiano patch chime through the hall under the rich baritone voice of Bill Medley.
I know what you’re thinking. Didn’t the Yamaha DX7 come out in 1983? And wasn’t it the first widely available digital synth of its type, with an extremely distinctive set of never-before-heard sounds?
You were thinking that, right?
So how did this seminal 1980s classic instrument make its way onto a record in a summer camp ballroom in 1963?!
I can’t explain this away like I can with the use of “She’s Like the Wind” or “Hungry Eyes” in the underscore – the guy on the screen clearly puts the record on, music comes out into the room, and everybody claps along & dances to it. The scene sort of hangs a lampshade on it when the guy running the camp asks “do you have sheet music on this stuff?” but it’s still incredibly jarring, and lifts me right out of the film at a crucial moment.
If you’re having trouble understanding why this drove me as crazy as it did, you may be reading the wrong blog. You’d also have at least one thing to talk about with my wife Clare 🙂
Why it’s a problem
Clare loves the film – we own the special edition dual-DVD, and I think we have the soundtrack album kicking around somewhere. And once a year or so we end up parked on the couch with some finger food & a bottle of wine for another viewing. And that’s fine – it’s a charming little film, and I think it’s only fair that I let Clare see some depictions of abdominal definition from time to time, because lord knows she’s not getting that from me. But that one section of the film used to send me into fits of apoplectic music-geek-spasm. And because Clare was just trying to watch the damn film, when I kept going on about it she would tend to get angry.
You wouldn’t like her when she’s angry.
So after a few failed attempts to just bite my tongue, I decided I had to try to devise a fanwank to allow me to get through the part of film in question. What’s a fanwank, you ask?
(fandom slang, derogatory) Explanations invented by fans (of a television series etc.) to gloss over mistakes in continuity.
So it’s when you devise a little backstory about things happening off screen to explain a plot problem or answer an unanswered question. If you hear somebody say:
“Here’s how Bruce Wayne got back to Gotham at the end of The Dark Knight Rises”, or
“Cobb is definitely still dreaming at the end of Inception and here’s why”, or
“I’ll tell you how come the ninth doctor managed to get in all those historical pictures even though he’s clearly just regenerated at the beginning of the season and we never see him leave Rose’s side between then and the final scene of ‘The Parting of the Ways’ where he regenerates into David Tennant”,
then chances are you’re about to encounter some fanwank.
So what’s your magical solution, smartarse?
Ok, so I had to do something, if not for the sake of my continued enjoyment of an otherwise fine film, then at least for the sanctity of my marriage. And in the end it was surprisingly simple.
The clue is in the first line of the film (if we ignore the disk-jockey on the car radio)
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.
So the whole film is framed in flashback, but narrated from what I’ll assume is a present-tense contemporary to the film’s release in 1987. There are two versions of Baby – one is the teenager we’re seeing from scene to scene, and the other is the version we hear just once in that opening voiceover, but through whose recollection we actually experience the entire remainder of the film. For the purposes of this discussion I’ll call her “Grownup-80s-narrator-Baby”.
So Grownup-80s-narrator-Baby is with us in the late 1980s, taking us back through the events that occurred to her a quarter-century ago. In one fell swoop this opens a window to justify everything that bothers me about the music in the film. Grownup-80s-narrator-baby knows about Yamaha DX7s and reverb-drenched saxophone solos because she’s in the late ’80s when those things are commonplace and fashionable. And of course her recollection of 1963 is going to be coloured through the lens of her experience in the years since then.
And the anachronistic music in the final scene? How does that explain the EPiano coming out of the record player? It doesn’t have to. In the reinterpretation that music is simultaneously diegetic and extradiegetic – there’s a 1963-appropriate version of Time of My Life playing in the hall, but the version we’re hearing in the film is translated through the adult-narrator-Baby’s late 80s-tinged recollection. If she’d been telling the story in the 70s it would have been disco. If she’d been telling the story in the 90s it would have been grunge. But it was 1987, so we got sparkly synthy sax-solo AOR.
Now look – I’m not suggesting this was the intent of the filmmakers. Honestly, I suspect they just wanted to cram in some modern music so they could have a hit (and it worked). But as a tool for watching the film without squirming, I find it works for me.
Tune in next time, as I solve another one of the planet’s most pressing issues.
Nicely done, sir! I feel you’re now ready to progress to the next level of fanwank, with a film full of nostalgia for the very era from which Dirty Dancing emerged, even going as far as to feature one of its stars (and, incidentally, a load of the bands we wished we’d listened to at the time – Tears for Fears, Joy Division, Bunnymen…hell, even INXS). I’m talking, of course, about the other DD: Donnie Darko. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to come up with an interpretation that explains everything that happens in the film. And I mean everything. Interested? C’mon, at the very least it provides an excuse to watch it again…