Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights

The spirit of a peoples
Guy Ferland
Romola Garai, Diego Luna, Sela Ward, John Slattery, Jonathan Jackson
The Setup: 
Girl discovers her womanhood while learning to dance with a Cuban.

My friend and I wanted to see this in the theater and never made it, and it’s been on my list ever since. This is the sequel, made 20 years later, that has virtually no relation to the first movie except the name and certain story elements. So let’s go!

We begin in 1958, when Katey’s dad is transferred to Havana for some job. The credits take the form of postcards from Havana, which is actually Puerto Rico as Havana, showing the family’s arrival and the charming wonders that they see. Our heroine is Katey, played by Romola Garai, who recently played the 18yo Briony in Atonement. She’s supposed to be 18 but looks about 26. Her mom is played by Sela Ward, and her mom and dad used to be champion ballroom dancers, until mom gave it all up to pop out some kids. There’s also dad and a little sister.

The girls are instantly introduced to the teen set of the hotel where the rich white people stay. It’s exactly like a high school clique, and the little sister likes it, while Katey feels all ostracized because she’s smart and always has her nose in a book. Nevertheless, the handsome Phelps, who looks like a baby Cary Elwes, takes a shine to her and asks her to the dance that Saturday. Phelps is the son of dad’s new boss.

While this happens they are waited on by Javier, played by Diego Luna of Y tu Mama Tambien. He spills a drink on one of the girls and she calls him a spic, and the boss makes him pay for the drink even though it wasn’t his fault. Katey tries to apologize and feels all bad, but Javier doesn’t need no sympathy from no white chick.

Later the bitchy girls leave Katey at the hotel while they go off, and she has to try to walk to wherever they were going. She ends up meandering through the native parts, and soon sees Javier dancing in one of those spontaneous street dancing celebrations that are apparently common. He sees her and guides her through the streets, when suddenly they’re caught up in a revolutionary meelee. Or didn’t you realize that this is all taking place just as Castro is rising to power?

Back at the hotel, Katey is dancing when Javier pops in, and exhorts her to “just feel the music!” The movie is also, for the first time of many, trying to pass off Latin-tinged hip-hop as traditional Cuban music. He tells her to come to some Cuban club and check out the real dancing, but she can’t, that’s when she has to go to the dance with Phelps!

So she and Phelps go to the dance, where the girls are all snide to her and are appalled by her Latin-style red dress. She leaves and takes Phelps to the Cuban club, where she sees the first glimmer of the dirty dancing the movie is talking about. “Look how they feel the music!” she exclaims, then Javier comes up and dances with her, shocking and appalling Phelps. He makes to take her home, then attacks her in the car, saying “You didn’t say no to HIM,” when she refuses. This is all a trauma because, as you recall, Phelps’ dad is Katey’s dad’s boss.

So Katey wanders into some dance lessons at the hotel, and who should be there but—Patrick Swayze! I’ll have to look at the dates of both movies to work out the timeline at play here [like, after the first movie he whisked off to Cuba, aging 20 years in the process?]. He encourages Katey to enter the big dance contest. Oh my God, I wonder if she WILL!?!

Now, it turns out that little sister Susie blabbed about Katey’s night out, and Javier got fired! So Katey wanders into his village to make pooty faces, and meets his brother, who is very involved in the revolution. She tells Javier that they could enter the contest, and if they win they’ll get $5,000 and a trip to America! This is just what Javier needs! He says no but of course changes his mind.

So Katey and Javier have a date where they get to know each other and relate, then repair to his place to practice their dancing. He has to teach her to let go and feel the Latin beat, and she has to teach him to restrain his natural impulses and learn a ballroom routine. She also takes exception to when, in the course of dancing, he wants to caress her ass or run his hand down her cleavage. This becomes a minor problem, because how’s she going to dance dirty if she won’t let herself be felt up?

So she goes to have a heart 2 heart with Swayze, who tells her she needs to work through her fear, and that “it’s scary as hell to let another person touch that part of you.” Hmm, it seems there’s a double meaning there. Does he mean that tender, remote area of the soul, surrounded by the heart’s metaphorical battlements? Or does he mean her vulva? I think it could be a little bit of both. By the way, we learn again that Swayze can really dance, unlike some of the leads in this movie. More on that later.

So she and Javier have more relating and then they are dancing in front of the old movie of mom and dad doing their famous ballroom routine. They start to feel the music and then—the dancing gets dirty! But uh-oh, Javier’s brother walks in. She goes home [presumably leaving the only copy of her mom and dad’s precious home movie at Javier’s], and the next day they practice again, with more hip-hop being passed off as traditional Cuban music. I wonder: do the teen girls who watch this movie think that this is real Cuban music? If so, we’d have to revise the whole history of hip-hop to acknowledge its birth in the streets of Cuba, not America.

So when Katey gets home, her dad is waiting for her, and it's clear from her confident, forthright responses that Katey is becoming an adult woman—and all because she let her dance partner touch her cootch! Nevertheless, it was nice to see her mature by showing her with a more assured air, rather than a change of wardrobe. At this point I was really behind this movie, its delightfully naïve story and most of all, its two really charming and talented leads. Unfortunately, the movie is about to torpedo itself real bad.

So after some family drama, on Christmas Eve, Dad decides the family is going to go to the big dance contest—the very one Katey and Javier are secretly in! I don't know how Katey was planning to ditch her family on this important night, and I also found it an odd idea that the hotel would schedule its big contest for the two nights when people would probably be busy [the finals are on New Year's Eve], but I guess things are different in Cuba. So they go, and Katey slips away, and the next time her family [and her dad's boss] sees her, she's on the dance floor!

So as the film tries to pass off Mya's "Do You Only Want To Dance" as the sounds of 1958 Cuba, Katey and Javier dirty dance. They dance WAY dirtier than any of the other dancers, and WAY dirtier than is necessary, or appropriate! Call me conservative, but I really don't think Katey needs to let Javier bend her over and hump her ass doggy-style [see above] in front of her parents. This is but one example. The other thing is that all of the other couples, seen flitting in the background, are much better dancers, and one's eye keeps being drawn to them. Nevertheless, we are supposed to believe that Katey and Javier are among the three couples chosen for the finals. You'll also notice that Katey's parents react to the sensual nature of the dancing, but seem to have no reaction to Katey's suddenly–emergent talent.

Katey's parents are furious—especially mom! She says they've been humiliated and made the laughing stock of the hotel, and what's more, everyone thinks their daughter is a Latin-lovin' SLUT! Katey mouths off that her mom's just pissed that Katey follows her dream while her mom gave hers up, causing mom to bitch-slap her! Katey runs off to Javier [who is out celebrating, God knows with who] while Mom confesses to dad that she wonders what life would be like if she'd never had the kids and remained a dancer. Well what, did someone MAKE her have those kids?

Anyway, the next day Katey comes home and she and mom have a heart to heart, and her mom says her dancing was amazing—proof that you have to take a mother's praise with a grain of salt. Then, poof!, it's New Year's Eve, and time for the big dance finals. All three couples will get their own dance, with Katey and Javier being last. We blow through the first two couples, then it's time for Katey and Javier, but they're not long into their big number when someone spills a drink, someone sees that Javier's brother has a gun, it's fired at the ceiling, and it's panic at the ballroom! It seems that Javier's brother and his buddies were going to try to assassinate someone [or did? It's impossible to tell], which leads to a very politics-lite conversation on how if you try to achieve someone through killing, you're just like the oppressor, or whatever. And wouldn't you know—the revolution happens that very night! President Batista, who has not been mentioned the entire movie, flees the country, which leads to a Cuban celebration in which all of the extras have clearly been instructed to just jump up and down. All of them. That's all they do, jump up and down. Katey and Javier settle on the beach, where at last Katey's hymen yields to Javier's gentle pressure. In the morning he suggests that they might be parted, but she says no, her family will take him to America—like a pet! But he has his own family… and you know, for two young, star-crossed lovers, they accept their separation with rapid, stoic resignation. Mom is already packing when Katey gets home, and they're off the next day. There is a brief epilogue in which we see that the whole family went to the Cuban club that night for one last big dance, Mom and Dad are there and smiling, and don't miss the little insert of Susie waving hi as she grooves on the dance floor in a decidedly un-dirty way to the shockingly anachronistic hip-hop. We have some voice-over about how it's okay that she has to leave the love of her young life, because she's over it and knows that she'll see him again. Poor, politically-naïve Katey. Meanwhile you, the viewer, are sitting at home saying "Wait a minute—where's my climax? Where's my big, movie-ending dance sequence?" Well, it ain't here, babe. It got co-opted by a revolution. But you didn't rent this movie to see a fucking revolution, did you?

So for the first hour, I was totally into this movie. The biggest strength this movie has is its two leads. Romola Garai is an excellent replacement for Jennifer Grey as she is also quite pretty, but also looks quite ducky from certain angles. This makes her convincing as the intellectual outcast girl at the beginning [you'll notice she drops those books right quick], and brings empathy for her as she gains confidence and finds herself. She's also a very good, absolutely convincing actress, and is extremely winning throughout. Diego Luna is also very good and thoroughly convincing. He really looks at Katey with lust, seems young and yet confident, and appears convincingly weighed down by his family troubles. What's more, the two of them have fantastic chemistry together. So yay on both of them.

One minor problem is that neither of them can dance very well. The IMDb states that both of them were selected for their acting and trained to dance and, well, it seems like it. This wouldn't be that much of a problem if we weren't supposed to believe that they're really fantastic dancers—and if everyone in the background weren't such notably better dancers.

So it was all coming off very well and I was entranced—it had all the songs, dancing, romance, turgid family drama and pleasing spice of political revolution—and I was beginning to think this might be a late addition to my best of 2007 [in terms of stuff I watched this year], until it decides to, as it were, shoot itself in the foot for the "climax." Hey guys, you need a big dance climax—not an aborted one, then a lot of talk. And it's a bit of a betrayal of the affection this film has built up for the characters to have them adjust to the harsh realities of the situation so quickly. Hey—I cared more about these characters than the movie does, and more than they care for each other! And that can make you feel like a chump for getting into the movie. Like Katie, I opened myself up, dealt with the fear, and let this movie touch that special place deep inside—but unlike Katie, this movie didn't hump me doggy-style in front of my parents, it left me on the side of the movie road like a used-up tramp in yesterday's fashions.

One small consolation is that, despite my fears to the contrary, we did not have to hear a Latined-up version of "I've Had the Time of My Life."

Should you watch it: 

If you like this sort of thing, and this is better than most—for the first hour. I would turn it off after that.