Let's start this off with a little thought experiment.
Without thinking, name the first five things that come into your head when you think about Dirty Dancing. You probably got Patrick Swayze, '60s music, dancing (obviously), a woman in your life who loves the film and the lift at the end, right? It's OK, that's completely understandable and a lot of it is how people approach Dirty Dancing and the film as a whole.
Like a lot of musically-themed films, it's often reduced down to either a song, a move or some actor. The next best example is Saturday Night Fever, with John Travolta and the Bee Gees soundtrack. You think flares, the disco music, the strut at the start of the film, Stayin' Alive and maybe something to do with John Travolta. Did you know there's a rape scene AND a suicide in Saturday Night Fever? Did you also know that the guy who directed it went on to do the film adaptation of Whose Life Is It Anyway? with Richard Dreyfuss and John Cassavetes, and worked on TV shows such as Rod Serling's Night Gallery and Heroes?
What we define as a good film and a bad film is, ultimately, subjective and what we dismiss works the same way. Dirty Dancing is often dismissed as a chick flick. They see Jennifer Grey doing a salsa and a tango with Patrick Swayze, they hear Time Of My Life, they think it's all a gas and not worthy of further introspection or analysis. The fact is that Dirty Dancing can and should stand shoulder to shoulder with other films from the era. It's most likely because the film became such a hit with female audiences and its soundtrack became so popular that it was largely overlooked.
The story, for those who don't know, is layered and definitely more complex than you give it credit for. Jennifer Grey plays a young affluent Jewish teenager who's vacationing in the Catskills with her doctor father, played by Broadway legend Jerry Orbach, and her loving but distant mother, played by Tony Award-winning actress Kelly Bishop. She meets and is instantly attracted to Johnny Castle, the so-called leader of the working-class, down-at-heel service staff in the resort, but her reserved demeanour prevents her from acting on it. Before long, the two are forced to work together when Johnny's dance partner for an event finds out she's pregnant from a womanising waiter in the resort. Desperate, she asks Baby for help - who manages to finagle the money from her father so she can get an abortion from a travelling doctor in the region. Keep in mind this is 1963, ten years before Roe v. Wade, so the procedure is illegal.
That's just the first twenty-odd minutes or so of the film. The story carries a young woman's sexual awakening, the class divide in '60s America, Patrick Swayze's character being a sex worker as well as dance instructor, and a cameo from Wayne Knight. The screenplay, based on Eleanor Bergstein's own experiences, manages to address and service all these issues and subplots without ever once falling into depression or getting caught up in itself. Oscar-winning director Emile Ardolino does the same, treating the subject matter with the respect it deserves, but still keeping the pace and tempo up so that the film never lulls. Not only that, the cinematography from Jeffrey Jur - who's worked previously on peak TV such as Westworld, Dexter, and Halt And Catch Fire - soaks up the colours and vibrancy of the era, and stages the dance routines for each sequence in a compelling way. The period production design, as well, is on par with the likes of Mad Men - which cinematographer Jeffrey Jur also worked on.
So, if it has a nuanced and rich screenplay, and it has an Academy Award-winning director behind the camera, are the performances lacking? Absolutely not. In fact, for both leads - Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze - it's considered their best on-screen performance. Grey's character goes through a full arc, beginning the film as a sheltered and naive teenager and by the end of the film, she's a woman embracing her independence and agency. Patrick Swayze became a teen heart-throb off the back of it, but never quite shook the mantle - despite impressive performances in other Good Films™ as Richard E. Kelly's Donnie Darko and Roland Joffé's City Of Joy.
With the release of ABC's TV musical movie, it does seem to play into the misconception that Dirty Dancing is just a bit of fun and not something that's worth considering alongside other dramas of a similar stripe. It is a fun film, for sure, but there's a lot more substance to it than audiences give it credit for.