White Nights is a 1985 thriller starring Gregory Hines, Helen Mirren, Isabella Rossellini, and top Russian ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. The film is too much a thriller to be considered a musical, but its major draws are Lionel Richie's music, and the dancing of Baryshnikov and Hines. Film critics who did not like the film, such as Roger Ebert, still thought the film was worth watching for the dance scenes alone.
Baryshnikov plays a character named Nikolai 'Kolya' Rodchenko, who was one of the Soviet Union's top ballet dancers who defected to the west. Nikolai is recaptured by the Soviet Union when his flight crashes in Siberia. There he meets an American dancer who defected to the Soviet Union, a character named Raymond Greenwood (played by Hines) who is supposed to help rehabilitate Nikolai. Soviet leaders attempt to reform and punish Nikolai for his defection. Nikolai wants to escape the Soviet Union again and seeks allies. While left together, Nikolai and Raymond dance during their dramatic dialog and exposition, expressing angst while in the midst of dangerous political intrigue.
Rossellini plays Raymond's devoted Russian wife, Darya Greenwood. Mirren plays Nikolai's former love interest, whom he abandoned, but now holds influence over him and Soviet organizations. The film was directed by Taylor Hackford. During the 58th Academy Award ceremony, the film won Best Original Song for "Say You, Say Me" by Lionel Richie, as well as "Separate Lives" performed by Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin and written by Stephen Bishop (also nominated). The 80's setting is an important aspect of the film since much of the drama is fueled by the Cold War.
This Film is an example of:
- As Himself: Both the star of the film, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and the character he plays in the film are incredibly successful Russian male ballet dancers who defected to the West.
- Award-Bait Song: Won an Oscar for, "Say You, Say Me", a song about the theme power of friendship by a pop star composer.
- Breakaway Pop Hit: Pop song "Say You, Say Me" became an all-time hit on the Billboard 100 chart during 2008, long after everyone forgot about the movie. This title wasn't even on the movie soundtrack because Motown didn't want Lionel's first single since in 3 years (Can't Slow Down 1983) to be on another record label. The song's music video hardly referenced the movie.
- Choreography Porn: The duet between Nikolai and Raymond is a perfect homage to both portrayers different, yet similar dancing styles.
- Cold War: This film's drama only makes sense when remembering the Cold War's intense Soviet and USA rivalry.
- Dancing Royalty: Mikhail Baryshnikov is one of the greatest male ballet dancers in history according to The Other Wiki. Gregory Hines was no slouch either, famous for his tap dancing. Their movie characters were also famous for their dancing.
- Dancing Is Serious Business: Nikolai and Raymond dance while discussing their conflicts, angst, and exposition, while in the midst of a Soviet prison.
- Films of the 1980s: The 1980s were near the end of the Cold War and all their great Cold War movies. The 80s are still remembered during the heyday when Russia still had world renown for ballet.
- Fire-Forged Friends: The tap dancer and ballet dancer are set up as antagonists, yet bond through dancing and become allies. This doesn't seem like a spoiler since it is right on the movie poster, "Two men. Not soldiers. Not heroes. Just dancers. Willing to risk their lives for freedom and each other."
- Flush the Evidence: Famous defector Nikolai tries to hide his identity from Soviet officials by flushing his passport down an airplane toilet as the plane crashes in Soviet territory.
- Genre-Busting: A tense Cold War thriller about a defector in Soviet prison which features ballet, tap dancing, and feel-good pop music about The Power of Friendship by Phil Collins and Lionel Richie.
- Improv Dancing: Invoked Trope as the characters improv dance riffs during dialog, not as part of an official music production.
- Moscow Centre: The USSR's dreaded KGB of the Cold War era is not happy with ballet dancers who defect and make the Soviet Union look bad.
- Old Flame: Helen Mirren's character Galina Ivanova is this for protagonist Nikolai 'Kolya' Rodchenko.
- Pop-Star Composer: This is the movie where Lionel Richie won his Oscar for "Say You, Say Me".
- The Power of Friendship: Built into the movie poster, and the lyrics of the award-winning theme song, "Say You, Say Me".
- Psychological Thriller: Although the film has thrilling action, the focus is on the characters, their art, their challenges, and their choices.
- Shell-Shocked Veteran: roughly midway through the movie we see Raymond have a flashback / breakdown of his time in the US military (given time frames and character ages, most probably Vietnam) and from his lines is very clearly a sufferer of PTSD. As the condition was still (presumably) not understood for what we know of it today, he received little to no effective treatment for it in the US. His defection to the USSR was apparently spurred by the promise of getting help for his issues.
- Spoiler Cover: The two main characters are antagonists at the beginning, but the poster spoils that they will become friends. "Two men. Not soldiers. Not heroes. Just dancers. Willing to risk their lives for freedom and each other."
- True Art Is Angsty: The two main characters desire art had something to do with all their subsequent pain, defection, and political intrigue.