It’s no understatement to say that we are living in some extremely dark times. That 2016 is a year of unrelenting awfulness has become something of a meme, but that’s not to say it isn’t true. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is hitting cinemas with its message of hope in the face of adversity and the need for rebellion which feels timely, urgent, and necessary. It has got me thinking about other films with such a message and one in particular in which there is hope, there is rebellion, and there’s a whole lot of dancing of the dirty variety. It is not the classic starring Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze, but its sequel which shares a star with Rogue One in Mexican actor Diego Luna.
Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights serves more as a reworking of the original story, rather than directly continuing Baby’s tale, and it chooses to combine the fluffy dance narrative with the more politically conscious Cuban Revolution story bubbling in the background. Set in 1958, it follows Katey (Romola Garai), an American high schooler newly arrived in Havana with her family. Too clever and socially conscious for the American crowd, she strikes up a friendship with local Javier (Luna) and events conspire to see the pair enter the annual Latin Ballroom Dance Competition in order to win him some money for his family.
Though Dirty Dancing remains one of the prime girly sleepover movies, beneath the cosy dancing veneer is a harder edge. Screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein managed to ensure the 60s-set film took in everything from pre-marital sex, class differences, backroom abortions, and male privilege. Havana Nights would similarly attempt to highlight difficult topics through its plot, continuing with the class issues, but also adding in geopolitics and racial tension. It was released in 2004, with a huge legacy to follow, but critical acclaim was scarce and audiences didn’t show up. But there are a few reasons why Havana Nights deserves another look, one of which is that it’s a little burst of optimism so many of us need right now.
It wasn’t always the case that Havana Nights would be a Dirty Dancing movie and it is one of those films that has a transformative and bizarre path to existence. Initially, it was to be a political and romantic drama based on the experiences of JoAnn Jansen, who would go on to produce the film. She had lived in Cuba as a teenager from 1958-9 and playwright and NPR host Peter Sagal wrote a screenplay based on her experiences. It would follow an American teenager witnessing the Cuban Revolution who also happened to fall in love with a young Cuban revolutionary at the same time.
The screenplay was commissioned by Lawrence Bender and then bought by a film studio, who sat on it for ten years before Bender decided he wanted to make a Dirty Dancing sequel. Though the patching of the political with the musical is very much in-keeping with Havana Nights’ predecessor, the seams between the two styles are visible, as seen in Katey’s narration right at the beginning of the film: “Here’s what I know about Cuba: my high school French wasn’t going to help me, I didn’t know a single person, and though no one would talk about it, Fidel Castro was leading the people in a revolution against President Batista.” It’s clunky, yes, but the film approaches its narrative with such enthusiasm, you can’t help but be powered along with it.
When Garai signed up for the film, it was still at the political and romantic drama version before it was transformed into a Dirty Dancing sequel. Garai has been quite vocal in not loving Havana Nights, criticising the pressure she was under to lose weight in particular. She also states that she was wrong for that part, but for me, it is Garai’s performance that makes the film. Like Baby, Katey is a young woman out of time, far more concerned with breaking the mold than fitting it. Garai brings a great tension to Katey by making her simultaneously wise beyond her years and naively earnest, particularly when it comes to finding a way to help Javier.
Javier, as played by Luna, is a little more straightforward. He wants the revolution, but also acknowledges the danger it could place his family in, having already lost his free-thinking father. He is much more experienced than Katey; life in pre-revolutionary Havana has forced him to grow up fast. Luna brings a lot of charm to Javier, all fluidity compared to Katey’s more fixed outlook on life, as well as getting most of the comedy moments. Their relationship also develops organically as they recognise their willingness to flout convention makes them kindred spirits. There are no real Big Moments as you see in Baby and Johnny’s relationship, but lots of little cute or emotional ones instead that are just lovely.
The pair have an easy chemistry, which helps enormously when it comes to the dance routines, a blend of the rigidity of Katey’s ballroom choreography versus the liberated Latin of Javier’s street dancing. The routine-learning montages are genuinely adorable as the two get to grips with everything from basic hip wiggles, posture, and language barriers. And their big dance at the semi-finals is a delight to watch. For a film set in a very specific context, it plays fast and loose with the music, throwing up both contemporary and modern Cuban-infused pop, because why not? It worked for Patrick Swayze. And he didn’t have the benefit of Wyclef Jean. It’s not easy music to resist. As the great Shakira once sang, hips don’t lie and I defy yours not to wiggle at least once during the course of this movie.
The cast around Garai and Luna is strong too; Sela Ward and John Slattery appear as Katey’s more open-minded parents who also used to be ballroom dancers, bringing a nice charm to the proceedings. Look out for January Jones as a teen with a penchant for bitchiness and racial slurs. There is a Patrick Swayze cameo, looking a good deal older, but he’s a welcome presence who sets Katie on her path to finding her freedom through dancing. He’s not explicitly named in the film as Johnny Castle, which gives the impression that there is not one, but many Johnny Castles, all waiting in hotels to teach bookish girls how to dance and lose their spaghetti arms. Like a guardian ballroom dance angel.
But I think the most important things that both Dirty Dancing and Havana Nights offer us are two young women who are brave enough to fight for what they want in a society that seeks to belittle and silence them, simply for being young women. Even though Katey has a brief wobble when she wants to throw everything away to be with Javier, the moment is a human one and she soon realises that it’s not actually what she wants. That these two women just happen to be in stories where dancing, dirty or otherwise, is the chief focus, doesn’t diminish how important it is for girls to see young women like this in movies so often dismissed as fluff.
It may be clunky, it may be cheesy, and it may be a very light approach to a very serious moment in geopolitical history, but most of all, Havana Nights is a lovely film. In a world where borders are becoming more rigid and communication is terrible, Katey and Javier’s relationship is a little beacon of rebelliousness and rhythmic optimism.
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