Cinema is an art form worthy of critical insight, close analysis and intense study. It is also, however, a form of entertainment, and the kind of art that touches people deeply, forming unbreakable connections of adoration between the viewer and the film. It is easy to sneer at someone’s favourite film, but to wax lyrically and pour out all your reasons for why a film means something to you is a joyous activity. That is why at Nouse we let our writers write to their heart’s content about the “Movies That Matter”, whether they be critical masterpieces, childhood favourites or the film that made them fall in love with the cinema.
I won’t lie, I am slightly (actually far more than just slightly) embarrassed that this is what first popped into my brain when I thought of films of personal importance. But it is what it is: and that is Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. Everyone knows the first Dirty Dancing movie, but what about the second? It is a cheesy-ish 2004 drama about a preppy American girl, Katey (played by Romola Garai) who moves to Havana with her family in the late fifties. She falls in love with the Cuban waiter at the hotel where they live, Javier (Diego Luna), despite her bourgeois family’s conspicuous disapproval. The two of them do a lot of – surprise surprise – dirty dancing, and decide to enter a Latin Ballroom dance competition. Things get dramatic as both families reject their relationship, and everyone is facing serious political upheaval. Is it a particularly good film? Well, no. Was it really necessary to make a completely different and irrelevant sequel to the iconic first one? Not really. Did it have a massive impact on my life? Definitely.
I first saw the film when I was twelve. Being twelve sucked and this rhythmic, sun-filled hour and a half was a perfect little piece of escapism. The Cuban beaches and cityscapes of Havana in the fifties were wonderful, and the dresses that Katy and every other girl wore made me green with envy (and adoration). But most of all, its music, dance and occasional Spanish dialogue all knocked me down, and I quickly decided which foreign language to choose in school. I started exploring the bottomless well of Cuban and Latin music, and convinced my friends to join me in trying ballroom dancing. I walked to and from school in dark, pouring autumn rain, daydreaming and listening to the soundtrack. I was so amazed by this film that one night my dad simply sat down and watched it himself (without being too impressed).
There is no question that love, dance and music are the essential elements. The film’s political events make for some drama, but largely serve as a backdrop and are not explored in depth. Undoubtedly a superficial take on serious issues, though it allows Katy and Javier’s dancing and relationship to play the lead role. (Just as expected, one might say, as this is a romantic dance movie). As the film made such a big impression on my tween self, I still remember its mini history lesson: the Cuban rebels kicked out dictator Batista on January 1, 1959. It was the completion of the revolution, and the start of the Communist Republic.
In retrospect, I learned that Romola Garai was deeply miserable during the filming. Rightfully so, as she was forced to stay underweight; weighed and measured every day, only seventeen years old. It was her first and last meeting with Hollywood. It is also a prime example of a ridiculous double standard – I have serious doubts Diego Luna had to go through the same.
Simply a great little escapist treat
This is the downside of reading interviews with actors: knowing about off-screen events sometimes disrupts the movie experience. Still, I try to enjoy just the film itself, without getting too distracted, because Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights is simply a great little escapist treat – which may be just what many of us need in these tumultuous times. It also made my twelve year old self swear to a) dive into Latin music, b) learn to dance, c) go to Cuba and d) master the Spanish language. Ten years later, I can tick off all four. So don’t come and tell me that films can’t have proper life influence. They don’t even have to be particularly good.