Hearing the Music

On the recent Lunar New Year I spent the afternoon catching a classic film for the first time, Dirty Dancing. Many of you are rightly showing disgust with me that I waited 29 years to finally see this movie, but sometimes, for one reason or another, a person just doesn’t see a particular movie or other show or song or whatever. The movie was fun and entertaining, and said many things about how people from the 1980s see the 1960s, and despite the blunt handling of class and gender issues, and Roger Ebert’s one-star reviewDirty Dancing has become an iconic film from the late 1980s.

One of the most iconic parts of Dirty Dancing is the song “(I’ve had) the Time of My Life,” which went on to win the Oscar for Best Original Song and the Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Duo. The song appears at the end of the movie in the final dance scene where Patrick Swayze’s character, Johnny Castle, makes his public proclamation about how Francis “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey) changed his life. What’s interesting about this song, and it’s appearance in the final scene, is that Dirty Dancing takes place in the summer of 1963, and “Time of My Life” is so steeped in the style of the late 1980s. The song, and the entire scene, present a strange moment where the distinction between diegetic sound (sounds characters can hear such as car horns, talking, and music on radios) and non-diegetic sounds (a film’s musical score, or voice-over narration) is blurred, and one is left wondering if the characters in the film are actually hearing the same music the audience is listening to.

Dirty Dancing is not the only film that plays with the idea of diegetic vs. non-diegetic sounds. In opening title sequence of Pulp Fiction the music changes from Dick Dale’s “Misirlou” to Kool & the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie,” which then becomes the music playing on the radio while Vince and Jules drive to their job; and during the spa scene in , both Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” and Rossini’s overture to The Barber of Seville are used in a way that Jerrold Levinson describes as “quasi-diegetic” in his essay, “Film Music and Narrative Agency.” Of course, music theater genres have dealt with the issue of whether characters hear the same sounds as the audience for centuries, and what may be happening in this scene is a transformation from a movie about dancers like Saturday Night Fever, to a dance film in the same respect as Footloose. In this respect the final scene of the film is serving the same function as a dance sequence in a Broadway show.

In the essay “The multiple modes of Dirty Dancing” (published in Perspectives on Multimodality) Markus Rheindorf places an important shift when Johnny Castle jumps from the stage down into the space of the audience and dissolves the class distinctions between the working-class entertainers, and the upper-class resort guests:

It is Johnny’s jump from the elevated stage and into the (diegetic) audience space that initiates the breaching and ultimately the dissolution of class boundaries. Johnny leaves the separate space of the stage — the space which he has always been allowed to occupy while dancing — in order to violate the classed space of the upper-class audience. He then invites the other dance people to join him, and when together they manage to induce everyone in the upper class audience to join them in their dirty dancing, they facilitate, strictly in terms of dancing, a perfectly innocuous mingling of the classes.


Breaking class boundaries and 4th walls since 1987

Shortly after Johnny leaps from the stage the rest of the dirty dancers join him in a coordinated dance formation that shows that we’re now in a true dance sequence (rather than watching people dance). Further into the song Johnny mouths the words to the “Time of My Life” and other minor characters react to the music. However when one asks if the characters in Dirty Dancing truly hear the same music we do, we would be asking the same question of any Broadway show.

When I polled several different people informally about the music in the scene, the answers ranged from an emphatic “Yes,” to more bizarre speculations about alternate universes where “(I’ve Had) the Time of My Life” existed in 1963, or that Johnny and Baby were hallucinating the song, or that Johnny died in a car crash and the entire final scene was a vision Johnny had while either dying or after he died. Whatever may have actually happened (in the fictional world of Dirty Dancing), incorporating a full-on, musical-style dance sequence at the end of the movie without any sort of precedent occurring thus far in the film is a bold move on the part of the creative team. The choice creates a situation where the audience must consider the source of the music. Previously all music was clearly originated from within the action of the film (live musicians or recordings played by characters) or was clearly part of the film’s soundtrack (which occasionally allude to the theme of “Time of My Life”). One of the people I polled about this situation even mentioned that he “would never have made that call if [he] was in the room” when people were reviewing the script and plotting out the final scene.

What this means is that even the most inane films have the potential to challenge us in unexpected ways. For all of its clumsy handling of class, gender, and sexuality, Dirty Dancing has the potential (as it obviously did in my case) to engage audiences in a critical investigation of sound and music in films. In effect igniting a question about how and why we use music in films, to what end it serves, and the value music brings to the stories we tell each other.

Special thanks to Derek Jeppson, Bill Ferns, Adam Koplan, and Rachel Ralston.

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