Sambas of the Caribbean
Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights
The title of Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights may sound ungainly, but actually, if you go by the screen credits, it’s even more ungainly than that: Dirty Dancing Havana Nights Based on True Events. I don’t know what that “based on true events” means—unless it’s just an acknowledgment that there is, in fact, a city called Havana and that some events once took place there. As it happens, the events of Havana Nights (which would be a much better title all by itself) do have all the earmarks of the original Dirty Dancing: a teenage girl living a sheltered life, hot dance-floor action, a forbidden-fruit romance and parents overreacting before finally coming around.
Romola Garai plays Katey Miller, who comes to Havana in 1958, in the waning days of the Batista dictatorship, when her father (played by John Slattery) is transferred there by Ford Motors. (The knowledge that Batista’s days are waning, of course, is not yet widespread.) Katey grumbles and sulks about it —a high-school senior uprooted and hauled off to graduate in a foreign country—but she’s too nice a kid to pout for long, and the vibrant beauty of Cuba gets under her skin. She strikes up a tentative friendship with Xavier (Diego Luna), a Cuban waiter at her hotel—first by apologizing for an American snob who calls him names and then later on his own turf when she sees him dancing to some irresistible Cuban street music.
The music is new to Katey. It’s bold and sensual and unlike anything she’s ever heard, but she likes it. One night, on a date with James (Jonathan Jackson), the son of her dad’s boss, she talks him into going to La Rosa Negra, a nightclub for the locals. What she sees there is earthier and more … well, more Cuban than the sanitized rumbas and sambas that the sequined musicians and vocalists put on for the tourists at Katey’s ritzy hotel. The two of them encounter Xavier at the club, and when Katey dances with him, her response to the music makes her look loose and slutty in James’ eyes. He makes a move on her when he gets her alone—a sexual assault, in fact.
Katey escapes James’ clutches, and Xavier escorts her back to her hotel, getting himself fired later for fraternizing with the guests. Hoping to make amends, Katey asks Xavier to be her partner in a dance contest, where the $10,000 prize money will help make up for his lost income. Before she can be a good dancer, though, she’ll need to learn to “trust herself to feel the music.”
Havana Nights slavishly follows the formula of the original Dirty Dancing, except that director Guy Ferland isn’t as comfortable with the dancing scenes as the late Emile Ardolino was in 1987. (Ardolino, one of the few directors who really knew how to make a musical, died of AIDS in 1993, and that was a real loss.) Ferland chops up the dances and obscures some of the best moves, yet, in spite of that, it’s a little surprising to realize that this “prequel” is actually quite a bit better than the original. (Maybe it’s not so surprising. The truth is that Dirty Dancing wasn’t all that good; a 1997 10th-anniversary reissue was greeted mainly with indifference, as if moviegoers were a little embarrassed that they had liked the movie so much in the first place.)
The 1950s atmosphere of Havana Nights (with San Juan, Puerto Rico, standing in for Havana in its pre-Fidel Castro days) looks more authentic than the bogus 1960s of Dirty Dancing did. It looks more like the 1950s and—even more important, in a movie about dancing—sounds more like it. The “dirty dancing” is easier to believe, too, in this humid Caribbean setting than it was in a Jewish resort in the Catskill Mountains. And the background of the Castro revolution (Xavier’s father was murdered by Batista’s thugs, and his brother is secretly smuggling supplies to Castro’s men) gives the movie an aura of gravitas that the first film couldn’t match.
Garai and Luna dance well together, and it’s a shame that Havana Nights has to labor under the shadow of an earlier film. It was probably sold as Dirty Dancing II; it plays better as Havana Nights I.