In Focus: Shag

'In Focus: Shag'

In Focus is our chance to look a little closer at some of our favorite films. This edition of In Focus highlights our film of the month, Shag (1989).

A dance originating in the US in the 1930s and 1940s, characterized by vigorous hopping from one foot to the other.

Despite Shag‘s title, it’s not exactly a dance film. Sure there’s plenty of wonderful dance numbers, but it’s not completely focused on dancing — not on its surface level, at least. But it is about the spirit of dancing: the freedom and friendship felt by four young women who over the course of one weekend, come to realize that they have more control over their destiny than they may have previously thought.

One of its strongest suits, the film features an ensemble of lovable stars in their prime: Phoebe Cates, Bridget Fonda, Annabeth Gish, and Page Hannah. The movie also excels in production design. The clothes, cars, locales… all the visuals work with the script, music, and performances to perfectly recreate 1963. (Take a look at this Color Palette for the film to see how closely it emulates the shades of movies from the era that it pays tribute to, such as the beach party films.)

In the movie, four drastically different friends sneak away from their Spartanburg homes for big time fun and shag dancing in Myrtle Beach circa 1963. Through romantic entanglements, broken hearts, and some of life’s hard truths, these friends are in it for the long haul. What Shag may lack in plot, it makes up for in character, atmosphere, heart, and tongue-in-cheek nostalgia.


“Why don’t we just go up there and say ‘This was our last weekend together, and we didn’t feel like going to Fort Sumter and touring Goddamn colonial homes. We wanted to go to the beach and meet boys and go to wild parties and dance.'”

“Let’s dance.”
“I’m sorry. I’m engaged.”
“Well I’m sorry you’re engaged, too”

“We can conduct ourselves as ladies, no matter where we are.”

“I’m not going to college like some people. And I sure as hell ain’t marrying a damn Ralston. And I ain’t gonna die in a parish house in Spartanburg.”

“I take it you didn’t like The Hustler.”
“I wasn’t allowed to watch that picture show.”

“I think JFK’s a sweet potato.”
“Oh Melaina, he’s an old man. Ew!”
“I don’t care. I’d have an affair with him outside of marriage.”
“He’s the president, Melaina. It’s sacrilegious.”


Our four heroes who serve as the emotional core of the film are played by Phoebe Cates, fresh off her success with Gremlins  and Fast Times at Ridgemont HighBridget Fonda in one of her earliest starring roles, after Scandal but before The Godfather: Part III and Jackie Brown; Annabeth Gish, whose roles in Mystic Pizza the year before, Beautiful Girls, and SLC Punk! in the coming decade made her an indie darling; and Page Hannah who appeared in cult classics Gremlins 2: The New Batch and Creepshow 2. Playing their romantic interests are Scott Coffey (Mulholland Drive), Robert Rusler (Weird Science), Jeff Yagher (My Fellow Americans), and Tyrone Power Jr. (Cocoon).

In her second feature directorial turn is Zelda Barron. She got her start in the late 1960s and 1970s handling continuity for pulpy films such as InsertsCry of the Banshee, and The Squeeze before serving as script supervisor for Yentl. In 1984, she directed her first film, the well-received Secret Places, which she also wrote. After Shag, the only other feature she directed was Forbidden Sun. It seems a shame that she didn’t go on to direct more, because her confident control of Shag is apparent, from the wonderful ensemble chemistry to the tightly spun dance scenes and nostalgic feel.

The last of the Shag team that we’ll highlight is choreographer Kenny Ortega. He got his start working with Gene Kelly on Xanadu while choreographing and directing a number of music videos. He then choreographed scenes for several John Hughes films including Pretty in Pink  and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off before Dirty Dancing launched his work to the next level of fame. In 1992, he made his directorial debut with Newsies and has since directed many other cult favorites such as Hocus PocusHigh School Musical, and 12 episodes of TV’s Gilmore Girls.


In general, the attention to detail in the production design perfectly recreates 1963. There are a couple places, however, where they slipped up. The Cadillac DeVille they drive (seen above) is actually a model that wasn’t released until September of 1963, three months after the film takes place. In addition to that, the style of Furuno radar on top of their yacht would not be available for at least another decade, and a modern-style roller coaster complete with a loop can be seen in the background of the amusement park.

Shag was filmed on location in and around Myrtle Beach, but it did not use the Myrtle Beach Pavilion, one of the most iconic destinations there.  Filling in for it was another building in Cherry Grove dressed up to look like the pavilion. The Atlantic Beach Pavilion does make an appearance, standing as the venue for the climactic dance contest.

One of the film’s stars, Phoebe Cates, had a first job that was in a way, a sort of acting. She was a plain clothes security person at a Drug Store who pretended to shop while looking out for shoplifters. She only caught one person trying to shoplift, but she didn’t turn the elderly Bandaid-stealing woman in.

Another one of the film’s stars, Bridget Fonda, had her first screen appearance as an extra in her father’s film Easy Rider when she was just five years old.


“The actors in ‘Shag’ are some of the best of the younger generation in Hollywood, and they treat their material with the humor and delicacy it deserves. Children of a harder time, they seem almost gentle and affectionate toward their characters.” — Roger Ebert

“In the best scenes, the dialogue and the look of the film, which was directed by Zelda Barron, capture the flavor of the era with a satirical tongue-in-cheek knowingness.” — Stephen Holden, The New York Times

“The people responsible for ‘Shag’… show something that’s fairly rare these days — a genuine delight in having gotten hold of their filmmaking equipment.” — Hal Hinson, The Washington Post

“When I first saw Shag, its female characters seemed to give the sense that they were alive in the here and now, as opposed to living in the nostalgic past of American Graffiti.” — Tom Stempel, Slant

“The adolescent antics may be familiar, but Barron directs with affection both for her characters and for back-combing and boned underskirts; her young professionals turn in appropriately corny performances; and the soundtrack is a corker.” — Time Out 

You can take home Shag on DVD and Blu-ray.

In Focus Archive:
Breaking Glass
The Devil and Miss Jones
Knock on Wood
Who’s Minding the Store?
Knock on Wood
Smooth Talk

July 21, 2017

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