I was 13 when Footloose came out, and I still haven’t seen it. Kenny Loggins had a lock on ’80s movie themes, and I figured “I’m Alright” from Caddyshack and “Danger Zone” from Top Gun were enough. And even in the wake of the PMRC trying to censor “porn rock” in the ’80s, I thought a town banning the rock and/or roll music was unbelievable. But now, seen through the lens of nostalgia, I gave Footloose another look.
Kevin Bacon plays Ren, a hip kid from Chicago who moves to some podunk town in Utah with his mom after his Dad bails on them. As the outsider, he takes some crap from the local jocks and smart-asses. He ends up befriending one named Willard (a surprisingly skinny Chris Penn) when he shows that he’s got balls and won’t be bullied. However, one thing he can’t overcome, or even comprehend, is the town’s repressive attitude toward dancing and rock & roll- they’re both banned, and you can get pulled over for playing Quiet Riot in your car. The town’s lawmakers are quite convinced that if you bang your head, the Metal Health will drive you mad. And they don’t want you goin’ mad.
Reverend Shaw (John Lithgow) has the town locked down; his son died in a car accident coming home from a rock ‘n roll dance, and as usual, he doesn’t blame his stupid drunk-driving Darwinian failure of a child, but the music. So he keeps a tight leash on his daughter Ariel (cellist Lori Singer), who in place of rocking and rolling, likes to perform suicidal stunts. Such as standing on her boyfriend’s pickup truck and her friend’s car, while they play chicken with a tractor trailer, or dodging trains at the last minute. Seriously, if Daddy knew what she was doing, he’d toss a pile of Mötley Crüe records and a six-pack in her room and tell her to go hog wild.
Her boyfriend is Chuck, and being the douche of the film, has to bully and challenge Ren to a game of chicken with tractors. You know, to give it a country flair. Or maybe it’s because Ren drives a beat-up VW Beetle and Chuck’s truck would go over it like a speed bump? Either way, this is the scene jammed in to make male viewers stay put during a movie about dancing. Ren wins because he can’t find the brakes, and the school gives him a begrudging respect. But more importantly, Ariel decides he’s the big dog now, and starts working her wiles on him. Because she’s a crazy preacher’s daughter, her idea of fun is to meet on the railroad tracks at night, and make Ren save her from being hit by a train. In a normal movie, that would be followed by him dumping the crazy bitch off home, but this being an 80’s Trash of the Week, it makes romance bloom.
Once enough kids are on Ren’s side, he decides to take his case before the town council, and ask that the school be allowed to have a prom. He quotes from the Bible about David dancing for the glory of God, but still doesn’t win them over. They claim that if kids dance, “one thing will lead to another,” and people will crash it with booze and violence will erupt. Ren decides they’ll have a dance at the Roller mill where he works, outside the city limits. But there’s another problem, his buddy Willard can’t dance, so we’re subjected to a montage of dance training sequences in manly places, like the school gym, and near tractors, and on the wrestling mats. Let’s hear it for the boys- they manage to not look totally gay while doing it, and that’s saying something.
Reverend Shaw finally breaks down when he’s butting heads with his daughter, because she won’t tell him where she goes all night. Her comeback is actually pretty good- “you care more about me when I’m not home, than when I’m right here!” But he slaps her a good one anyway. Lithgow doesn’t play him as a monster; he is just misguided, distraught over the loss of his son. Which would mean Ariel lost her brother, but she doesn’t seem to care much. Nor does her mother Vi (Dianne Wiest, looking even more alien than usual). What finally changes Reverend Shaw’s mind is a bizarre shoehorned “message” in the screenplay. He’s in his church, having a final spat with Ariel, when she’s come to confess her sins. She says she’s not even a virgin! Now, I expected him to call forth fire and brimstone, but he’s interrupted by smoke, from outside. Lordy, no! The folks are havin’ a good ol’ book burning! See what we have stooped to and become?
I wonder how many teenage girls in the ’80s tried to defuse there Dad’s anger at finding that his little girl wasn’t as pure as the driven snow, by having their friends stage a book burning outside. I don’t know why they weren’t burning rock records, which actually did happen in the ’80s during the PMRC Witch Trials (when Al Gore’s crazy wife was trying to get the Senate to act on “pornographic rock records.” He didn’t care as much about polluting the air with burning records back then.) When the Rev sees where his intolerance has led his town, he breaks down and supports the dance.
And what a dance! Pink Balloons! Never-ending glitter confetti falling like snowflakes! And prom outfits you’ll never see again. I remember what an 80’s prom was like, mine was in ’89, when Guns ‘N Roses’s Appetite for Destruction wasn’t yet sated. Our theme song was the love theme from St. Elmo’s Fire, a film I have refused watch our of pure petulance. And their prom is actually better than mine was, despite it being held in a mill. Then again, they had Kevin Bacon and a young Sarah Jessica Parker cutting loose. Foot loose. Tearin’ off their Sunday shoes.
This movie was huge. The soundtrack was inescapable in 1984. I also blame it for the ubiquity of thin ties in the ’80s. I had a powder blue satin one, myself. If someone gave it to me now I’d strangle them with it, but I wore it willingly. In 20 years I imagine we’ll be laughing at goatees and messenger bags. Hell, we can laugh about those now! Footloose is a disjointed film that tries to do a lot. It doesn’t always succeed, but it’s a solid high school story with a decent soundtrack, and some memorable scenes with actors who’ve gone on to bigger and better things. Kevin Bacon, famous for slimeballs in Sleepers and The Woodsman, was almost a prettyboy here. Chris Penn is so far off from his role as Nice Guy Eddie, your go-to guy for “easily enraged fat guy” of the ’90s that he’s barely recognizable. And Sarah Jessica Parker of “Sex in the City” is positively adorable, back when she had measurable body fat. Nowadays she reminds me of a talented giraffe. So if you want to revisit 1984, Footloose isn’t the worst way to do it. It’s popcorn with little nutritional value, but sometimes that’s what you need- trash.
Beers Required to Enjoy: 3
Could it be remade today? They tried a musical. It failed.
Quotability Rating: Low
Cheese Factor: Provolone (aka smelly feetloose cheese)
High Points: Ariel’s suicidal hijinks
Low Point: You’re not a virgin? Wait, books are burning!
Gratuitous Boobies: Zip! This is Utah, dummy.