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How “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” Saved ‘Dirty Dancing’

The Patrick Swayze, Jennifer Grey–starring movie was just an indie that no one believed in—until a song came along that lifted it to legendary status

Madison Ketcham

2020’s summer blockbuster season has been put on hold because of the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the movies from the past that we flocked out of the sun and into air conditioning for. Welcome to The Ringer’s Return to Summer Blockbuster Season, where we’ll feature different summer classics each week.


Surrounded by cassette tapes in her hotel living room, Eleanor Bergstein began to feel hopeless.

Throughout the production of Dirty Dancing, the writer-producer had been searching for a new song to play over her movie’s climactic last scene. Though she had already handpicked the entire 1960s soundtrack, for the final song, Bergstein wanted something that echoed the era while still sounding contemporary to the ’80s. So, each night, after long days of shooting in North Carolina, she gathered her exhausted team—director Emile Ardolino, choreographer Kenny Ortega, and stars Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey—onto couches and popped in recently submitted demos. “We didn’t like anything,” she says. “They were terrible songs … it was like listening to a drink of water.”

As the movie reached the finish line and their search remained fruitless, a worrisome realization set in. Although the climax of Baby and Johnny’s memorable stay at Kellerman’s Mountain House was mapped out, “We were going to be rehearsing, choreographing, and dancing to something that would not be the final song,” Bergstein says. “We would lose the emotional precision we wanted.” Then, just a day before the finale was scheduled to be filmed, musical supervisor Jimmy Ienner delivered one last box of tapes, highlighting for Bergstein a duet written by Franke Previte called “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.”

“This is the one,” he told her.

Within 30 seconds of hearing Previte’s falsetto bleed into a Latin-infused percussive beat, the entire group started prancing around the room. Bergstein knew she’d found the song that would save the movie. “We just got up and danced until it was over and said, That’s it!” Bergstein says. The next day, Ortega adjusted his choreography to the new rhythm and lyrics, and a few months later, Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes replaced the vocals and polished the track.

When Dirty Dancing premiered on August 21, 1987, audiences left theaters buzzing. As the musical backdrop to Baby and Johnny’s last dance, “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” gave them a euphoric high that sent them straight into record stores. Over the next four months, the indie-romance became an unlikely hit, and its catchy last song raced up the charts, turning into an award-winning, global sensation. “It was really kind of an out-of-body experience,” Medley says. “So much happened because of that record and that movie.”

Thirty-three years later, the song remains iconic, inseparably linked to the movie’s finale. It’s needle dropped into countless weddings and graduations, and its accompanying dance has become ripe for homage and parody—at once plucking heartstrings, revitalizing a classic melody, and introducing the movie (and “The Lift”) to new generations. It’s an eleventh hour symbiotic success story—one that required random phone calls, makeshift recording studios, and a pestering producer.

Vestron Pictures

When Ienner first contacted Previte with a songwriting opportunity, the New Jersey–born crooner was considering quitting music altogether. At 40, the lead singer of Franke and the Knockouts was in between record deals, writing lyrics that labels didn’t want and selling cars out of his driveway to make ends meet. Still, Previte’s parents encouraged him to stick with it.

Though Previte hadn’t talked to Ienner in two years, the former head of Millenium Records was suddenly in his ear with a way back into the industry. “He goes, I’ve got this little movie, I want you to think about writing a song for it,” Previte recalls. Though he thought the offer was a dead end, Ienner insisted. “Make time, this is going to change your life.” When Previte heard the movie’s title, Ienner reassured him of the movie’s credentials, gave him a general description of the plot, and explained the parameters: The song needed to fill seven minutes and be ready in two weeks. “I’m like, Oh my god, I’ve got to write ‘MacArthur Park,’” Previte says.

But with just $100 in his bank account, Previte had nothing to lose. He called John DeNicola, a musician he’d written with before, and asked him to compose a backtrack. Previte explained the movie (“Baby meets Johnny in the Catskills”) and offered some structural notes: The chorus would begin at half-speed, he told DeNicola, and the verses would switch to double-time to become an upbeat dance tune. With those details, DeNicola called up Donald Markowitz for assistance. The two had collaborated before, and Markowitz was one of the few people he knew who had an eight-track sequencing machine. Inside his one-bedroom Upper West Side apartment, Markowitz took DeNicola’s notes and “wrote the music to it in 20 minutes,” Markowitz says. The next day, they began to tweak and record. “We went in there with a drum machine and bass guitar and a couple of keyboards [and] pounded out some music,” DeNicola says.

When Previte received their track, he played it over the phone for Ienner. “I like the feel of it,” the producer told him. “Make it a song.” The next day, on his way to a recording studio, Previte began listening to the chord changes and inspiration struck. “I’m on exit 140 on the Garden State Parkway in Union, New Jersey, paid the toll, the cassette goes into my dashboard and I hear the music,” he says. “I go Nah, nah, time of my life … What the hell am I saying? I’m scribbling ‘time of my life’ on an envelope.” Previte hashed out the remaining lyrics, sang both parts and sent the tape to Ienner. “We were the only ones that sent a duet,” he says. “When [Jimmy] said, ‘Boy meets girl,’ that stuck in my head—there’s two characters, so maybe they’re singing it together.”

Once the Dirty Dancing team approved the song, Previte paired up with Rachelle Cappelli to re-record the duet for the movie’s actual filming. As more notes and requests came in—the filmmakers wanted a slightly slower beat and more timbal drum sounds—Previte and DeNicola moved everything to a 24-track and sent in the finished product. Not long after, Previte and Cappelli’s harmonies were echoing around the movie set. Although it hadn’t been studio mixed and polished, the demo gave Ardolino and his crew exactly what they needed to complete the finale. Most importantly, it restored everyone’s faith in the movie. “Every time I hear the Franke original track, I start to cry because it just brings back those three exhausting, hopeful, terrified days,” Bergstein says. “It was everything that we hoped for. It was wonderful.”

While writing the script for Dirty Dancing, Bergstein had been simultaneously sorting through the records of her youth. Behind specific sections of dialogue, she inserted songs she’d once danced to in her friends’ basements, and later fought Vestron Pictures execs to keep them. For such a personal project, Bergstein wanted to accurately represent the musical flavor of 1963 and the changing, underground culture it represented. “I tried to pick songs that meant a lot to me,” she says. “They were emotionally tied into the movie.”

“Time of My Life” had the right mix of modern elements, but lacked an established 1960s voice that would sound authentic for the time period—though she adored Previte’s high-pitched voice, Bergstein knew it would need new vocals to capture her vision. “We tried very hard to make you believe that it was a song you never heard before,” Bergstein says, “but [still] one from the ’60s.” The anachronistic combination—nostalgic while looking forward—had a thematic purpose within the scene, too.

For Bergstein’s rousing conclusion, Johnny returns to the Catskills and interrupts the summer resort’s goodbye pageant. In what becomes a heart-thumping and exhilarating last dance, Baby redeems her previous missteps and leaps into Johnny’s arms, stretching her torso and limbs over his head and pulling off “The Lift.” It’s the joyful, orgasmic moment the movie has been building toward—the pair outwardly risking their love—and gives permission for parents and teenagers to celebrate their dramatic reunion and the sunsetting summer. In effect, the auditorium turns into a melting pot of sights and sounds—a kinetic space to resolve generational differences, unite a rapidly changing country, and acknowledge that the resort’s halcyon days “all seem to be ending.”

“If you don’t look deep enough, I think you can miss the fact that that movie has a lot of these anachronisms,” says Yannis Tzioumakis, a professor of film and media industries at the University of Liverpool and co-editor of The Time of Our Lives: Dirty Dancing and Popular Culture. “It doesn’t have a stable universe that is grounded in a particular reality. I think this is part of its success and timelessness.”

To achieve Bergstein’s musical climax, Ienner called up Bill Medley. The Righteous Brother, who’d made his bones alongside Bobby Hatfield, had been a well-known voice for two decades and was still active in the industry. He’d recently established himself in Hollywood, recording a song with Gladys Knight for the Sylvester Stallone action flick Cobra. But Medley wasn’t sold on a title that had no major stars and sounded like a “bad porno.” “I’ve kind of done a lot of this stuff, and I’m not sure if I want to do it,” Medley told him. Ienner sent over the song anyway. And though the singer liked what he heard, he didn’t want to travel to New York City and leave his pregnant wife behind. Unable to find anyone else, “[Jimmy] would call about once a week,” Medley laughed. “Has Paula had the baby yet?” When his daughter McKenna was born in February, Ienner circled back with an added proposition. “Jennifer Warnes wants to do it if she can sing it with you.”

At that point, Warnes had a strong track record of Hollywood success. The song “It Goes Like It Goes” in 1979’s Norma Rae earned her an Academy Award, and in 1983, she’d won a second Oscar with Joe Cocker for “Up Where We Belong.” Hot off the debut of her latest album, Famous Blue Raincoat, Warnes was concerned about attaching herself to a pop song that differed drastically from her own music. But Ienner told Warnes, like he’d told Previte, that the song would change her life. And after discussing the opportunity with her boyfriend at the time, she accepted. “I said, ‘Yeah I think I would like to do the song just to sing with Bill,’” Warnes remembers. “I’d like to hear the two of our voices together.”

Her commitment was enough to woo Medley; he had always enjoyed her singing style. Still, he played hardball with Ienner, only committing to the song if the production moved to Los Angeles. Ienner relented, and later that February, along with producer Michael Lloyd, Medley and Warnes shared a studio for a couple hours to record “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.” Enthusiastic about singing together, the pair hit it off right away. “We were facing each other not too far apart in the same room,” Warnes says. “They didn’t want it antiseptic, they wanted excitement to pour over into both microphones.” Medley loved the setup, and the creamy lower octave he chose to introduce the chorus matched his partner’s soaring alto. “That’s just real good energy when you have the other singer there with you and you can kind of play off each other,” he says.

Because it helped her in other movie experiences, Warnes wheeled in a playback machine so she could marry her high note to Grey’s lift. “I do well singing to picture,” she says. “That seems to be my skill.” After finishing the lyrics, Lloyd asked both of them to add a variety of harmonies and flourishes around the song, contributing to the tune’s ebullience. “I haven’t been involved in very many positive songs, and this was such,” Medley says. “I loved the lyrics and I really came to love the melody. It’s just one of those melodies that people want to sing or hum along with or makes you smile.”

Still, upon leaving the studio, neither Medley or Warnes thought they’d sung something as life-changing as Ienner had promised. They’d enjoyed meeting and felt all the vocal options they’d given Lloyd could potentially make a great track. But without having a real grasp of the movie’s romance and final dance, they moved on with little expectation.

“You have to be careful what you record,” Medley laughs knowingly, “because you might be doing it the rest of your life.”

Vestron Pictures

Six weeks before Dirty Dancing hit theaters, “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” debuted to little fanfare. The song was scheduled to be released in conjunction with the movie, but Vestron had pushed back its opening without alerting RCA records. The nearly seven-minute song hit the radio without any context. “They were out of sync, which is never a great thing,” DeNicola says. “It was an odd piece of music because it was written for the movie. It wasn’t contemporary for the time. It wasn’t like people were dying for a Righteous Brothers–type song.”

Previte assumed the worst. “I was like, ‘Well, that’s it for that song.’” But Ienner remained faithful, believing listeners just needed to see the movie to appreciate the song’s power. He went back to the studio and mixed a new track, cutting out the song’s long interlude for shorter radio play. When the songwriters saw the movie for the first time, they understood Ienner’s confidence. “I remember sitting there when it was over, and there was a group of people in the row ahead of us waiting [for] the song credit,” DeNicola says. “They were waiting to see what the name of the song was. That’s when I started to get excited that maybe we had something.”

“It was such a phenomenal ending, the climactic spot, like hitting the high note as you end a song and people stand out of their seats,” Previte notes. “I’m like, if this movie has any legs, this moment could be really historic.”

Eventually, synergy happened. The movie earned $3.9 million on its opening weekend and expanded into more theaters by Labor Day. Bergstein remembers fans picketing their local cineplexes to keep the movie open, and the studio’s predicted flop began skyrocketing. In the four months it stayed in theaters, Dirty Dancing earned $213 million globally. The song’s popularity, meanwhile, grew in tandem. “I would go to Tower Records every week,” recalls Markowitz. “Hey! Dirty Dancing, it’s no. 63. Next week, 37. OK, Top 20...” By early November, “Time of My Life” had become the no. 1 song in America; it would eventually sell over 32 million copies worldwide. “The movie’s popularity pushed the song, and then the song’s popularity pushed the movie,” DeNicola says. “It was a double whammy.”

Yet the blockbuster news hadn’t gotten to Medley—he forgot about the movie while touring over the summer. When a DJ finally told him he was playing his latest duet nonstop, Medley assumed he meant his song with Knight. “I came off that tour and right into the theater to watch that movie and kind of was blown away,” he says. “I think my voice was probably the perfect voice for Patrick, and I think Jen’s voice was the perfect voice for Jennifer. So it just worked out.” Later that winter, the song began collecting hardware. “Time of My Life” won a Golden Globe, a Grammy for Best Pop Performance by a Duo, and finished its awards season sweep with the Oscar for Best Original Song. Just like Ienner had promised, the song catapulted its creators’ lives onto a new trajectory. Previte, even three decades later, has continued making music for charitable causes based solely on his authorship. “When I would send a song out, people would take their earmuffs off, and I would get through doors I couldn’t ‘t get through before,” says Previte.

“For a song that I wasn’t even sure I wanted to do...” Medley says, “the girl that was born when I [recorded] it is now on stage, singing it with me.”

The first time Stephanie Klemons saw Dirty Dancing, she was 5 years old. Like many impressionable young girls, she fell in love with Baby and her transformation into an accomplished dancer. Now a 37-year-old Broadway choreographer who’s worked on Hamilton and In the Heights, it’s still her favorite movie of all time. So when the New York Giants requested she help them build a Super Bowl commercial that would replicate the movie’s final dance sequence and feature Odell Beckham Jr. and Eli Manning, she burst with excitement. “That was auspicious,” she says. “I knew it quite well.”

Klemons had conquered challenging tasks before, but never with football players. Inside the team’s facility, Manning would dance and perform the lift with Beckham, the director explained to her, and she’d teach some background steps to the offensive linemen. After editing down “Time of My Life” into a 60-second clip—keeping Medley’s familiar intro and cutting ahead to the chorus—Klemons coached up her new dancers. And though Beckham’s body double struggled with the lift in rehearsals, she trusted the star wide receiver could figure out the scene-stealing vault. “Trust me, tomorrow it’s going to work,” she told her crew. The next day, Beckham nailed his first attempt. “He was incredible,” Klemons remembers. “They were doing the lift, they were actually touching each other and holding weight.” In just two days, Klemons had gotten the footage they needed.

When the commercial aired in 2018, Medley was at a Las Vegas casino watching the big game with 1,000 others. Upon hearing his voice ring through the speakers, he laughed and figured someone was pulling a prank. Then his musical partner told him to look at the screen. “Here’s these two incredible football players singing the song and doing the dance,” Medley says. The spot became an instant classic. “I thought that was amazingly cool. It’s the gift that keeps giving.”

Indeed, in terms of pop cultural cache, Dirty Dancing and its final scene rank near the top. The climax and its song have been mimed and reinterpreted in countless ways and mediums, appearing in all kinds of commercials, musicals, television and movies. Among its most notable tributes, Black Eyed Peas used its chorus for its 2010 song “The Time (Dirty Bit),” which peaked at no. 5 on the Billboard Top 40. A year later, after Ryan Gosling admitted to his directors that he’d once performed the lift for another woman, the actor recreated the seduction for Emma Stone in Crazy Stupid Love. “We just loved it,” Bergstein recalls of the comedy. “Anybody who likes your work for any reason at all, you’re delighted.”

Bergstein has plenty of theories for why people keep returning to Dirty Dancing’s finale, but has most appreciated the conversations about the movie’s subversiveness in recent years. According to Tzioumakis, who teaches the movie to students each semester, the ending’s power is only possible because Johnny wants to dance to something new. The Latin drum elements of the song, combined with white singers and diverse dancers suggest that even in 1963, “everybody can be part of [the future],” he says. “It’s the perfect moment of euphoria.”

At the same time, the song’s past-tense title implies a reminiscence and beginning of a new chapter, which is partly why it filters into wedding receptions and banquet halls celebrating major milestones and transitions. Warnes agrees, and admits she hadn’t accounted for the joy factor the song supplied when she first recorded it. “I think that’s what people want when they want that song, they want to feel lifted up,” she says. “I’m really glad that it’s found a place in our social lives—to bring us out of the doldrums.”

“Time of My Life” is also, most simply, about a dream being fulfilled. Baby does, of course, nail the lift and stand up for Johnny in front of her father. She grows up, steps out of the corner and into the spotlight, and, for a moment, becomes exceptional. It’s an aspirational crescendo that’s hard to match, and for everyone involved in it, the way it all came together still feels like alchemy.

“The stars were aligned for this one,” Previte says. “If you separate any of that from the equation, I don’t think you have the same phenomenon.”

Jake Kring-Schreifels is a sports and entertainment writer based in New York. His work has also appeared in Esquire.com, GQ.com, and The New York Times.

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