Almost Famous + Dirty Dancing

Double feature: Need help bidding farewell to summer?  Try a double feature of “Almost Famous” and “Dirty Dancing.” Both films let you relive the thrill of warm weather escapades, then prepare you to wave goodbye to the season (wistfully, from the rear windshield of the tour bus/family station wagon) by pointing to the potential for good that lies further down the year’s road.

Beyond this functional link, the pairing of these two films poses an interesting question: why is it that anyone concerned with being perceived as cool (or critically acute, if you believe these adjectives have different referents) will readily admit to liking the former film, but would have to be subjected to heavy interrogation before confessing even the smallest soft spot for the latter one, its thematic doppelgänger?

The narrative parallels are clear – innocent, coddled, bright offspring of morally-oriented parents falls into a musical world, gradually becoming a part of it while retaining his/her innate decency, and even using said decency to change said world for the better.

The major difference between these films is their varying degrees of head-on, straight-up sincerity.  What makes “Dirty Dancing” potentially cringeworthy is that, unlike “Almost Famous,” its emotional earnestness isn’t tempered by irony.

Nostalgia without a distancing wink of self-awareness can be embarrassing, especially when the nostalgia is not your own.  But, to be fair, “Dirty Dancing” predated the irony juggernaut of ’90s popular culture by at least three years.  And its moral conflicts and class consciousness feel honest and well-intentioned.

Moreover, where “Almost Famous” separates its groupie love interest and its observing conscience into two roles, allowing each to call out the false positions and blind spots of the other, “Dirty Dancing” combines them into a single character.  As bright as she is, this character is too deep in her own coming of age to transmit a sense of proportion to the film’s events.

But you don’t watch these films for proportion.  You watch them to see music given not only its due, but also life and form and experiential specificity.  And you watch them to be reminded of the benefits of innocence, even of naiveté, and to face the new season with renewed hope and moral fiber.

(Creative Commons licensed original images courtesy of “The Farm at Sunrise Ranch” and “Jenny Leigh” at Flickr)

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