Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Step Up Revolution is a film about dancing and, nominally, revolutions, set in a town noted for its strong Cuban cultural influence. It is also a sequel that absolutely nobody was actually demanding. Taking all that together, one clear choice for this week's entry was really just about inevitable, though I'll admit the fact that I've been sitting on that post title since before I even had a blog helped seal the deal.
Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights - which, let's be absolutely straight here, should obviously been titled Dirty Dancing: Havana Time of My Life - is befuddling in every possible way. There is, firstly, the question of what it "is", because what it isn't covers a lot of ground: it's not a sequel to the iconic 1987 romantic-dramatic-musical Dirty Dancing, for it takes place five years earlier (1958 vs. 1963); but lacking a single shared character or setting, it's not properly speaking a prequel either. Though there are certain similarities in the central conflict, they are no greater than between either film and dozens of others, and character names are all different, so it's not remake worthy of the name. The brand name would be a lot more useful if Havana Nights did more to capitalise on that brand name. Deep down inside, there's not actually anything connecting the films besides the presence of "(I've Had) the Time of My Life" in the underscore - not the actual song, I want to point out as urgently as I can, just the tune used instrumentally - and the presence of Patrick Swayze playing a nameless character in Havana Nights who cannot possibly be held to be the same person as his character in the original film; that both the "Time of My Life" and Swayze cameos take place practically at the same time only serves to underline one's sense that, whatever Havana Nights was trying to be, a serious part of the Dirty Dancing franchise was not it.
Of course, there's an obvious answer, that old favorite chestnut of studio execs more excited by a bottom line than a drop of artistic credibility, "Brand Recognition." But since Havana Nights begins by claiming that it is based on real events, and since the only real event I could find in the movie was the Cuban Revolution (it's oh-so-vaguely inspired by the life of one of the co-producers, but that's far too extraordinary a claim to make for that reason), I am forced to conclude that the filmmakers felt compelled to reassure their target audience that events such as this could actually happen in life. And if Havana Nights doesn't trust its viewership enough to know about the Cuban Revolution, I'm not willing to allow that it trusts the same viewers to remember a 17-year-old movie.
Anyway, regardless of what the hell it is or why, Havana Nights is a movie that got made, and I'm now reviewing it. I certainly don't have to review it. I frankly don't want to review it. But I sunk 86 minutes of my life into watching it, and now I'm going to force it on all of you. In 1958, as previously discussed, 17-year-old Katey Miller (Romola Garai) arrives in Cuba with her parents (Sela Ward and John Slattery), and younger sister (Mika Boorem), on the event of her father being relocated to that country by his employers at Ford Motor Company. This being the heady days of Batista, when the country was doing everything it could to re-fashion itself as a playground for rich Americans. That fact sat poorly with a large enough segment of the poor Cuban population to stir up a popular movement to depose Batista, and this is the sort of thing happening here and there and everywhere when the Millers show up. But none of them care very much until Katey has a meet-cute with a waiter, Javier Suarez (Diego Luna, who undoubtedly got the job on account of his previous teenybopper dance movie, Y tu mamá también), whose family is in deep with the the anti-Batista, pro-Castro rebels.
Point in fact, none of them care very much even after this point, because from here, Katey - having successfully avoided the rapey advances of James Phelps (Jonathan Jackson), the unendurably square douchebox preferred by her mother - falls altogether in love with Javier, who is anyway not that interested in La Revolución one way or the other, and together they join up to win a dance contest that is, unluckily, held on the propitious night of 31 December, 1958. There's a whole lot of love story, and quite a bit of Cuban-ish music that tries to strike a balance between period-appropriate, and hip-hoppy enough to sell copies of the soundtracks to the teenagers of 2004, and it is largely successful, if by "successful" you mean, "you can tell that it's supposed to be Cuban". There is not a whole lot of historical context, just shots of sad poor people that are vague enough that only the most rampant of Fox News talking heads could get away with calling the film pro-Communist (a word actively avoided through the whole feature; Castro himself is only name-dropped once or twice), with a deeply unpersuasive scene near the end that demonstrates the filmmakers were at least aware that some people in America regard the Cuban Revolution as an ultimately negative thing, though it doesn't immediately seem that they know enough about it to have formed their own opinion one way or the other. This isn't by any stretch of the imagination a film about the revolution; it is a film that the revolution sort of happens at, because it is necessary to separate the young lovers, and the script unfortunately makes Katey's mom too understanding and forgiving much too soon, leaving Katey resoundingly free of being put in any corners.
Thunderously unnecessary Cuban Revolution subplot aside (a statement that could not ever be applied to any decent movie), Havana Nights writes itself, pretty much. This is a generic template that was old when Dirty Dancing used it, and screenwriters Boaz Yakin and Victoria Arch have more sense than to dick around with it, though I'll confess to be surprised that the Miller parents found out about their daughter's Latin fever at the semi-finals, not the actual finals, and that there was never anything resembling a "You can't dance with him!" / "Yes I can!" conflict to sweep us into the final act. Need to make more room for the "revolution" scenes, I wager; also, I suppose the difference between 1987 and 2004 is that it wasn't as okay to depict teenage girls as waifs controlled by their parents, and thus Katey had to be able to say "this is how things are, so there, the end", in order to give viewers an appropriate role model, and because that's exactly how this would have played out in the actual 1950s.
Where any film made to such a standardised model gets to distinguish itself is in the particulars, and on these, Havana Nights falls infinitely short of its predecessor: Luna isn't the worst imaginable replacement for Swayze, though his round babyish features are of an entirely different order than Swayze's carved '80s stud looks, and he's a better actor, but this is the only way in which Havana Nights distinguishes itself whatsoever. Garai is a damp rag of fizzled charisma and personality, who often seems right on the verge of slipping clear off the screen, certainly not any kind of strong protagonist that it's easy to root for, particularly since she seems to get everything so damn easy. And the dancing of the title... well, it is dirty all right, but there's not much more. Comparing the two movies is a fun experiment in looking at how movies were shot in the '80s versus the '00s, with particular emphasis on how much more fluid editing used to be, and how now it is used in the crudest and most obvious ways to disguise when movie stars cannot e.g. dance. The Cuban flavor that would seem to have been the only actual reason to make this movie in the first place barely registers; partially, of course, because New Puerto Rico cannot truly stand in for Old Cuba, but mostly because director Guy Ferland has not the slightest imagination about presenting a sense of place instead of just setting up the plot and kicking through it. This is a blessing, in a way, since his context- and atmosphere-free style means that we get through the movie pretty effectively in less than an hour and a half, and given how blank these characters are, the less time wasted with them the better. On the other hand, it robs Havana Nights of its one potential saving grace: some remote sense of what nights in Havana actually were, and how they were in any meaningful way different from every dance club in America. This, alas, was somewhat more ethnographic realism that the movie was interested in pursuing, and all we get in its place is a horribly routine star-crossed romance job with none of the spunk or humanity that made its oh-so-better forebear a generational classic.