Prefacing Havana Nights with Dirty Dancing must have been some marketing guru’s idea to make the movie attractive to the teens, who have discovered the 1987 original with Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze and turned it into a popular, oldie-but-goody video. Maybe that’s also why the 51-year-old, still-sexy Patrick Swayze was cast in a small, pivotal role.
However, Havana Nights doesn’t need gratuitous ties to an outdated prequel; the film is good enough to stand on its own merits. It’s a simple — albeit predictable — coming-of-age story that sizzles with chili-pepper-hot Cuban dancing. In this era of calculated wardrobe malfunctions, their teasing sensuality is also refreshingly sweet.
The story is based on choreographer JoAnn Jansen’s experiences as a teenager in pre-Castro Cuba. The year is 1958, and dictator Fulgencio Batista runs the island paradise that attracts rich American businessmen and gangsters, while Batista also has citizens murdered who want to protest his government’s ingrained corruption. The poor people support the rebels — led, of course, by the charismatic Fidel Castro.
Studious American high-school senior Katey Miller (played by Britain’s voluptuous Romola Garai, I Capture the Castle), reluctantly comes to Havana with younger sister Susie (Mika Boorem, Riding in Cars with Boys) and their parents. Dad (John Slattery, Mona Lisa Smile) is an executive on the rise with a U.S. multinational firm, and mom (Sela Ward, The Fugitive) is a beautiful corporate wife. Through home movies we learn that the older Millers aren’t as boring as they first seem: They had been famous ballroom dancers until the pressures of raising a young family forced them to take day jobs.
So it’s no surprise that daughter Katey has a strong genetic predisposition to dance like a champion. But nothing Katey’s ever seen in the States has prepared her for the feel-it-in-your-soul excitement of Cuban dancing, and she’s never had any warning about the effects a young Cuban hoofer (Diego Luna, Y Tu Mama Tambien) could have on her heart. Forgetful Mom has failed to inform her that there’s no force on earth that allows a woman to resist the charms of a Latin dancer.
So the rich American blonde and the poor Cuban waiter decide to enter the New Year’s Eve dance contest. In their weeks of rehearsal, they touch one another’s bodies, but they don’t actually take the leap of a real kiss. Scene after scene, they channel all their sexual tension into their erotic dancing, making the audience giddy with anticipation.
The Cuban revolution, swirling all around them, is ato be major global event; here it’s merely an aside to their romance. All the rebels really do is cut short what should have been the most exciting moment in the film — the culmination of the dance contest.
The 1950s costumes alone are worth the price of admission while Puerto Rico makes a stunning stand-in for Havana. The young stars are adorable, the soundtrack is brilliant and the dancing reminds us how much sexier we all are with a little spice.
Depth and historical perspective are agendas for another movie.
— reviewed by Marci Miller