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Flashback: on 1985’s White Nights

Nostalgia is a slippery thing. When I first experienced this film in the late autumn of 1985, I was enthralled by it(I’m certain I would’ve given it a grade of “A” back then). I had just recently turned 20 years old, I was a young actor still a number of weeks away from getting my most important stage role, and my film acumen was not quite up to speed yet(1986 was when I really began to immerse myself). It’s my recollection that I even went to see “White Nights” in the theaters twice. And I was looking forward to viewing it again recently, although I realized it had almost no chance of holding up to my youthful adoration. And it didn’t…but it’s hardly all bad news. There’s still an electricity to this movie that is undeniable. And so the convoluted plot line involving a Russian expatriate ballet dancer(Mikhail Baryshnikov)finding himself back in his former country after surviving a plane crash and forming an unlikely friendship with a former American soldier(the late, great Gregory Hines)that defected to the Soviet Union, doesn’t completely detract from the fun. In other words: hey man, it’s all about the dance.

After an astonishing ballet opening, we join Nikolai ‘Kolya’ Rodchenko(the legendary Mr. Barishnikov)aboard a plane heading to Tokyo. When the airliner develops mechanical issues, it is forced to crash-land on a military airstrip in Siberia. Fearing discovery upon landing in the country he illegally escaped from eight years prior, Nikolai is injured during the hard landing as he’s trying to destroy his passport in the plane’s lavatory. Recovering in the hospital from a head wound, he is easily found out by Colonel Chaiko of the KGB(Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski in full, squint-eyed, slime mode). So, Chaiko deposits Rodchenko into the home of African-American tap dancer, Raymond Greenwood(the charismatic Mr. Hines), who defected from the U.S. some years before to escape racial injustice. Greenwood, along with his Russian wife Darya(a one-year away from “Blue Velvet” immortality, Isabella Rossellini), is elected to convince the captured Nikolai to dance opening night at the Kirov ballet. So, they are all sent to Leningrad to train Rodchenko back into shape after his accident, while also enacting his former lover, Galina(the stunning Helen Mirren), to convince him to perform. All the while, Rodchenko’s manager Anne(a completely wasted and hysterical, Geraldine Page), who was on the plane with him but uninjured, battles in the Russian U.S. embassy to have Nikolai returned to America.

This motion picture was obviously released before the “cold war” was officially over. It was pre-Gorbachev, and a little more than a year after the Soviet Union boycotted the 1984 summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Tensions were still extremely high. It was also the era of MTV, and the music videos spawned by “White Nights” are etched in my memory. The film boasts two #1 singles after all, in “Separate Lives”(sung by Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin)and “Say You, Say Me”(performed by Lionel Richie). Both of those songs were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song—and the latter actually won! So, believe it or not, “White Nights” can accurately be deemed an Oscar-winning movie. 1985 was also the cultural era of “Rambo”, “Miami Vice”, break-dancing, and the stratosphere touching fame and popularity of Prince, Madonna and Michael Jackson—and “White Nights”, and its music television-ready vignettes, is firmly of its time. But when you pair the extraordinary talents of hoofers on the level of Barishnikov and Hines, what you get is some incredible dance sequences. And those training scenes are still enthralling. Both talented men would go on to other film work that concentrated on the art form, but nothing anywhere near as successful as “White Nights”(it wasn’t a blockbuster, but it was a modest hit). Also, more than two decades after the film’s release, Helen Mirren would win a Best Actress Oscar for “The Queen”. But I’ll bet that she fondly remembers “White Nights”, for it’s where she first met her future husband in director Taylor Hackford(the lucky bastard)!

Don’t look to this movie for any depth and subtlety; its politics are simplistic and obvious, with all of the Russian authorities presented as brutal, manipulative stereotypes—especially Skolimowski as Chaiko. And Geraldine Page, one of the finest actresses of the 20th century(she passed away suddenly and unexpectedly less than 18 months after the debut of “White Nights”, and just weeks after grabbing the Best Actress Academy Award for her work in “The Trip to Bountiful”…after seven previous nominations ended up in the loss column)is reduced to flailing her arms and gesturing erratically in a ineptly written character role. But if you seek this out for the dancing, then dancing is what you’ll get. My good friend and I used to work out to this soundtrack in his basement(sadly, the album does not include the Lionel Richie smash), and I just popped in the cassette tape(still worked)the other day to give a fresh listen. It still gets my blood pumping, but I highly doubt I can accomplish those vertical sit-ups any longer(don’t ask). And you know what, the performances of Mr. Barishnikov and Mr. Hines aren’t half bad. In fact, they make the most of the sometimes cheesy script. It was a nice nostalgia trip, and I bet most of you could enjoy it too. Hey, it may be a Reagan-era time capsule…but it’s all about the dance.     Grade:  B-

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2 comments on “Flashback: on 1985’s White Nights

  1. I was thinking of this film as I was teaching the Cold War to my students and I wish there was time to let them watch it in class. I think I re-watched it last year and it pushed every button and brought me back to those Cold War days. As a teacher I can agree that the Soviets are not exactly portrayed fairly but, given their jobs and roles in society, are probably fairly accurate. As the son of a dance teacher I can agree that the dance scenes are probably the BEST of the last 40 years. My mother would always complain, “We can’t see their feet! We can’t see the dancing!” No chance of missing the artistry in this flick.

    But the thing that always gets me is the performances. Hines is tremendous and Rossellini does some fine work, entirely believable as a young woman torn between the love of her husband and love of her homeland. The dance/crying scene between Barishnikov and Mirren is worth the price of admission alone. The intensity of the interactions truly reflect the actual tensions of the time. I can remember (so I am sure you can) what it was like to live in the constant fear of a nuclear war. This movie nails every step.

    • Wow! Brian, much thanks for such a personal and insightful commentary. You have no idea how pleased I am that this film seems to have struck a chord with you, as much as it did with me so many years ago. And to have professional approval of the exciting dance sequences through the memory of your dear Mom, makes it all the more thrilling. I do recall that constant nuclear threat, so you’re dead-on in making that connection. But my memories of this film involve mostly those two electric performers…and how beautifully those men could move. So ecstatic now that I chose this for my March Flashback feature! ML

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