While this movie is generally very highly regarded and even considered to be a classic, I am mystified by the small but vocal minority that actually manage to not like this film. For this reason, despite the fact that the majority of the people who read this will feel I’m preaching to the choir, I feel the need to make the case for its merits.
Much has been made of the salacious nature of the film’s choreography, but what the people who view it only as a poor man’s substitute for porn are missing is that, quite apart from its supposedly scandalous nature, this is some of the best choreography seen in a musical film since the Fifties. Kenny Ortega’s later musicals, like Newsies and the High School Musical franchise, would not distantly approach this film in quality, but his choreography would continue to be one of the best things about them.
And while Patrick Swayze may not have been a Shakespearean-level actor, he was probably, next to John Travolta, the best dancer that Hollywood had at that time. Jennifer Grey wasn’t quite his equal as a dancer, but that made sense in-movie, since she was supposed to be his pupil, and her heartrending performance and impressive ability to convey character through her imperfect dancing more than made up for it.
The film also has one of the greatest soundtracks of the Eighties, no small achievement considering that the decade produced far more great movie soundtracks than successful musical films. A common complaint from the film’s detractors is that the six Eighties Pop songs mixed in with the collection of Sixties classics breaks the mood of the film. And while the best of the Eighties songs, “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” and “Hungry Eyes”, seem to inexplicably blend in with the older stuff, I’ll admit that some of the other songs, particularly the risque “Yes”, feel a little out of place at times. But simply as a collection of music, the soundtrack is phenomenal; the period hits chosen here are all glorious classics that have aged beautifully.
And I’d argue the film’s attempt at romance-as-class-war was successful…certainly more successful than the myriad of other films that have used the same device without ever thinking about it as deeply as this film does. The class struggle is implicitly bound into the plot, not just by the usual rich-girl-falls-for-poor-boy concept, but because the entire reason the heroine gets mixed up in the plot is her idealistic belief that all people are the same and her compassion that refuses to condescend.
Also, when the characters call each other out for their behavior, it consistently seems justified, whether it’s the heroine pointing out her father’s hypocrisy or the leading man seriously questioning whether she ever really intended to tell her father about their relationship, avoiding a common problem with movies of this type.
The film even, unlike so many rich-girl-poor-boy plots, ends on a couple that do seem to have a possible future together. The plot of the movie was apparently semi-autobiographical on the part of the screenwriter, and it really does have a feeling of reality that most versions of this stock plot lack.
There really is substance to this movie beyond the music and the dancing, and it actually deserves a greater level of respect than even its fans generally give it. Along with Saturday Night Fever, Grease, and Fame, this was one of the only Pop-style musical movies of the era to constitute a complete success, and like those movies, even people who love this film rarely look beyond its surface glitz to see the genuine level of depth underneath.