'Dirty Dancing,' 'The Sandlot' and 10 other movies to remind us of summer's glory days

Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in “Dirty Dancing” (1987).
Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in “Dirty Dancing” (1987). Photo credit Getty Images

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — There's something special in the air in the summer — a time, in our youth, when we had just a taste of freedom, made all the sweeter by the subtle threat of losing it all when we grew up and became ... responsible.

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We remember our summer soundtracks, the adventures, the hint of danger in those rare times we were free of adult supervision, and the friendships — which we swore would never end — that got us through.

Now that we're like the boring old adults we vowed never to turn into, it's good to remember the days gone by. This list of movies capturing the essence of summer may serve best as reminders that some of our more youthful ambitions are not entirely gone.

Summer of Soul

We’ve all heard of Woodstock, but in that same summer of 1969, another music festival just 100 miles south drew just as many people. Questlove’s Oscar- and Grammy-winning documentary “Summer of Soul” reveals never-before-seen footage from the ’69 Harlem Cultural Festival. The festival took place on weekends over six weeks of the summer, featuring dozens of top-chart Black artists who we now know and love, some of whom were just getting their start: Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, and The 5th Dimension. The film shines a light on the healing nature of music amid a racial reckoning of the chaotic decade.

“Summer of Soul” is currently streaming on Hulu and Disney Plus.

Dazed and Confused

Another movie with a killer soundtrack, albeit a much whiter soundtrack, this 1993 slice-of-life stoner anthem follows an ensemble of Austin, Texas, high school and junior high students on the last day of school in 1976. It's about a bunch of kids driving around looking for something to do, walking the thin line between celebration and mayhem, as they swan-dive into summer. What could be more relatable?

As with other where's-the-party odysseys, the story is propelled mainly by the teenage priorities of getting lucky, getting drunk and getting high. As more and more states — oh, but not Delaware! — legalize recreational marijuana, the central premise of this movie may feel less and less subversive. But its charm and authenticity carry it off, giving it an almost documentary quality.

The standard archetypes are covered: the star football player (Jason London), the sadistic bully (Ben Affleck), the hot sister (Michelle Burke) and her dorky little brother (Wiley Wiggins). There's the token Black dude, the hot teacher, the cool kids, the geeks. But the movie does seem to tread some new ground with Matthew McConaughey's breakthrough role as "the guy who graduated years ago but still hangs out with high school kids." Showing through his thin veneer of cool is the heartbreaking sadness of a man with no direction, resting on the laurels of his glory days, unprepared for his future and afraid to let go of his past. "You just gotta keep livin', man. L-I-V-I-N."

“Dazed and Confused” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and Hulu.

Fire Island

“Fire Island,” which just debuted on Hulu, is a rom com for the 21st century. A group of queer besties vacation in the Pines, an LGBTQ enclave on New York's Fire Island, a thin strip of barrier island about 50 miles east of Queens, famously known as a gay paradise. They clash — and find love — with other island-goers who are a bit more stuck-up, compared to their “literal trash” selves (their words). At its core, it’s “Pride and Prejudice” but with a lot more oomph. Starring: Joel Kim Booster, Bowen Yang, Margaret Cho, Conrad Ricamora and James Scully.

“Fire Island” is currently streaming on Hulu.

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants

Based on the book of the same name, this 2005 movie is a true testament of friendship. Four best friends part ways for the summer, either visiting extended relatives in Greece, staying with an out-of-state parent, attending summer camp or staying home. But the one thing the holds them together is a pair of jeans that magically fits all of them perfectly, despite their different body types. Abercrombie could never. They mail each other the pants so they all get a turn wearing them. (Remember, this is before group texting was a thing.)

Those pants really lasted a long time. Lead actresses America Ferrera, Amber Tamblyn, Blake Lively and Alexis Bledel are real-life friends to this day.

“The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

The Sandlot

Nothing feels quite like summer like riding bikes, swimming in public pools and, of course, playing baseball. “The Sandlot” (1993) is a quintessential coming-of-age summer break story that exudes nostalgia from every square inch of the diamond and has since become a cult fan favorite. In the summer of 1962, Scott Smalls is the new kid in his L.A. suburb. In an effort to make new friends, he finds of group of boys obsessed with baseball. The team’s best player and leader, Benny Rodriguez, takes him under his wing, as they go through many adventures of summertime fun.

“The Sandlot” is currently streaming on Hulu, Disney Plus and Amazon Prime.  

Stand By Me

You want a timeless classic, look no further than "Stand By Me," the 1986 coming-of-age movie about a summer long past but never forgotten. Four friends — Gordie Lachance (Wil Wheaton), Vern Tessio (Jerry O'Connell), Chris Chambers (River Phoenix) and Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman) — embark on an adventure to find the body of a boy who was accidentally killed by train. What seems like a light-hearted jaunt becomes much more significant and surprisingly dangerous as the boys learn more about each other's lives, cementing their friendship with the defining moment of their youth. It's a dream cast, that superbly captures how boys behaved without the burden of adults looking over their shoulders, in an age before cellphones and video games.

“Stand By Me” is currently streaming on Netflix.

Now and Then

What “Stand By Me” did for coming-of-age films for boys, “Now and Then” did for girls.

Four childhood friends meet as adults to reunite and reminisce about a fateful summer they all shared. The foursome is getting together ahead of Chrissy (Rita Wilson) giving birth to her first child.

As they remember the summer of 1970, it flashes back to that time, and the audience gets to experience their coming of age over the course of a few months. They experience young love, boy craziness, loss, embarrassment amid adventures that will cement and connect them forever.

“Now and Then” is available to rent on Amazon Prime.

The Parent Trap (1998)

There’s something about summer camp and the ’90s. Lindsay Lohan pulls double duty by playing twin sisters who have never met, split between their parents in California and London. They meet at an American summer camp, where other girls are shocked at how similar they look. Camp pranks and a few peanut-buttered Oreos later, the sisters bond and make a plan to switch places so they can get to know their other parent. The 1998 version is classic, mainly for the ways the all-star cast — Lohan, Dennis Quaid, Natasha Richardson, Elaine Hendrix, Lisa Ann Walter and Simon Kunz — bring a touching family love story to life.

“The Parent Trap” is currently streaming on Disney Plus.

I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)

Sure, it can be fun and cute, but summertime can also bring about severe consequences, as we learn in this thriller slasher series. A group of teens are driving down the road when they accidentally hit a pedestrian. They dispose of his body in the water and agree to never talk about it again. A year later, they return home from college and receive a menacing note (hint: It’s the title of the movie). A hook-wielding killer seeks revenge, picking them off one by one. The movie and sequel are unsurprisingly not highly rated, but the cast fits perfectly in the vein of yet another ’90s teen movie: Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Freddie Prinze Jr. and Johnny Galecki.

“I Know What You Did Last Summer” (1997) is streaming on Amazon Prime.“I Still Know What You Did Last Summer” (1998) is streaming on HBO Max.

Friday the 13th (1980)

At the risk of incurring the wrath of legions of splatter fans, it must be said — most of the “Friday the 13th” movies are interchangeable. You take a bunch of annoying teenagers, drop them in a New Jersey summer camp with minimal supervision, and add a hulking killer. Voila! You’ve got a “Friday the 13th” movie!

While a few in the franchise attempt to do something different with the Jason Voorhees killing-spree formula — e.g., kill him, attempt to replace him and send him to space — it’s the first one that remains one of the most memorable. That’s not because it’s any good, mind you, but because (SPOILER ALERT for a 42-year-old movie) Jason isn’t the killer. In fact, he’s barely in it.

That’s not to say Jason isn’t important. It’s his drowning death that causes Camp Crystal Lake to close in the first place — and it’s what prompts one person to go on a murderous tear when new owners re-open it. The teenage counselors (including Kevin Bacon!) are felled by the killer, one by one, until one final girl remains in the end to fight for her life against the deranged foe.

But let’s face it, no one watching this movie is watching it for a strong story or great performances. It's all about the blood. In that regard, “Friday the 13th” delivers — in buckets. It’s the summer camp massacre movie that started them all. There's gore by the gallon and a few good scares. On a hot summer night, what could be better?

“Friday the 13th” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Wet Hot American Summer

Anyone who spent a summer (or 12) away in the woods with only teenagers to make sure you don’t die can relate to the nearly perfect sleep-away camp satire, “Wet Hot American Summer.”

Set in the lawless, pre-internet early '80s, “Wet Hot” chronicles the eventful last day at Camp Firewood, following Coop (Michael Showalter) and his counselor friends (a rolodex of A-listers that the year 2001 could have barely dreamed would be so successful now, including Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Chris Meloni, Bradley Cooper and Amy Poehler) as they try to keep hormones and the fate of the camp in check.

After the discovery that a piece of Skylab is on track to fall on the camp, astrophysics associate professor Henry (David Hyde Pierce), who lives nearby, joins forces with the camp’s director Beth (Janeane Garofalo). Together they devise a plan to divert Skylab and save the camp and lives of all the campers.

This is just one of about 30 plots in the movie. There’s love, intrigue, training montages, personal growth, a talking can of mixed vegetables and endless quotable moments that will leave you in stitches and wishing it was 1981 all over again.

“Wet Hot American Summer” is available for rent on Amazon Prime.

Dirty Dancing

Now on to a campground for grown-ups — Kellerman's Resort, in the sleepy Catskill Mountains — where daddy's girl Frances "Baby" Houseman (Jennifer Grey) is bored to death. It is the summer of 1963. Her life of privilege has sheltered her from the roughnecks and floozies who inhabit the staff cabins. And ironically, that that may be precisely what draws her so strongly to that world — unprepared for its realities as she is — and into the arms of Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze), the dance instructor with whom she will fall madly in love by movie's end.

Johnny's dance partner Penny (Cythia Rhodes) is "in trouble," as they said back then, and Baby tries to help her new friends by lying to her father (Jerry Orbach), who is a doctor, to borrow some money — to help Penny pay for an abortion. But without the proper medical care that comes with unencumbered access to safe, legal abortion, Penny gets gravely sick, and Baby is forced to go back to her father to save her life.

Having lost her father's trust, Baby is forbidden from seeing Johnny or any of "those people" ever again. Defiant, she enlists as Johnny's new dance partner while Penny recovers, after a few rough starts, she finds herself deep in the swing of things and on her way to an independence she has never known.

"Dirty Dancing" is unlikely to ever leave our collective consciousness, but in case anyone needed a reminder of the climactic and iconic final dance number, the Muppets have come through, once again, with this neat little mashup.

“Dirty Dancing” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. ("The Muppet Show" is on Disney+.)

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