“When you burn all these—what are you going to do then?”
Almost three decades later, I have to acknowledge the fact that Footloose is dated. I don’t say it to be derogatory or to admit some hidden yearning I have to see it remade—which it was—but instead to simply state a fact. It’s dated; I’m not sure anyone could really refute the statement. That said, however, you cannot deny the talent involved. With acclaimed director Herbert Ross and songwriter turned screenwriter Dean Pitchford, the level of expertise behind the camera is somewhat staggering. And while it may not be a true blue musical, I’m hard-pressed not to include it within the genre. When the original song laden track-listing gets second billing only to the actors in the end credits, you can bet it’s just as important, if not more. Thanks Kenny Loggins.
Rather than have the cast breakout into song or sing their woes as though it happens in reality all the time, Pitchford crafted a story around the power music holds. By using book-burnings, religious oppression, wavering faith, and adolescent strife, he has touched upon the very essence of what rock ‘n’ roll means to the youth of America—in any decade. Music is a cathartic cure for what ails us, helping us conquer our fears and overcome adversity. We retreat into the lyrics, the rhythm, and the emotion. We cope with the loss of loved ones, break through the dull pain of seemingly listless existences, and above all else realize we are not alone. These artists speak the truth, the words flowing through our headphones a window into our souls as though we are the subjects of each composition.
Both Ross and Pitchford must be applauded for shedding a light on issues many would rather leave to the private corners of their familial sanctuaries. They create vessels for mankind in the small, sleepy town of Beaumont. The hurt and depressed voice of leadership refuses to move on from his own tragedy and therefore punishes those who listen; the repressed children who don’t know any better finding they need to rebel in order to experience what they’ve been missing; and the new kid in town with an air of exotic wonder possesses the power to instill real change. All these things we’d expect in an adult drama are reappropriated and projected onto high school students in a feat that I’m sure helped open the hearts and minds of 1980s youth. But no matter the success in all that, Footloose has to have the dumbest premise in cinema.
Dancing has been made illegal? There is actually a law on the books that forbids dancing? I’m as open to suspending my disbelief as the best of them, but this is just too much. Even in the construct of the film’s ultra conservative rural town, it’s tough to legitimately allow yourself to believe an entire populace would rally around their preacher to the lengths they do here. Turn the genre on its head and you could create a captivating horror film about the brainwashing of God and sheep being led to slaughter—this is how hypnotized everyone appears to be. Even Reverend Shaw Moore’s (John Lithgow) daughter Ariel (Lori Singer) finds herself torn between the fun hip shaking of rock music and the powerful orations of her father on Sunday mornings.
Factions form, splitting youths and adults apart. Ren McCormack (Kevin Bacon) is right in the middle of the fight—a newcomer recently arrived from Chicago in complete awe at what he sees. He wants to have fun, drive his VW Bug with the windows down and music blaring, and dance in celebration of life. His new friends latch onto this confident rebellion with equal parts excitement and fear, wanting to join the revolution but scared at what might result. But his fervor is too much to ignore as Willard (Chris Penn), Woody (John Laughlin), Rusty (Sarah Jessica Parker), and even adults in boss Andy (Timothy Scott) rally around him to finally make a stand. And Ren isn’t being insolent—he isn’t saying the law is baseless and stupid—he just wants to let the town know it’s their time to enjoy what life has to offer.
A flimsy plot despite the worthwhile message behind it, the characters leave a lot to be desired. Parents are angry and frightened, hiding behind censorship; kids sleepwalk and tiptoe to serve the plot, their motivations steeped in repression. The young, beer-drinking jocks itching for a fight are implausibly gymnasts and the brutish Chuck (Jim Youngs) of course becomes the third head of a love triangle with Ariel and Ren. The adults push their children away as the kids do whatever they can to buck authority. Dancing is cool because it’s illegal—this is what we must buy into. Countering such frivolity with Ariel’s apparent suicide wish and Chuck’s abuse of women becomes a bit unnecessary, though. The vicious fight scene at the end condoning extreme violence causing you to scratch your head and wonder if the filmmakers went too far.
There are many things to like too: the secretive ‘Library’ of scrawled, forbidden literature passages; the dance lessons given to Penn’s Willard to turn him from hothead to twinkle-toes for Parker’s more outgoing Rusty; and a finale in haloed light vignette as kids dance and confetti falls, putting a smile on your face. Footloose’s most resonate part, however, is Lithgow’s Reverend—the only truly three-dimensional role. His stubborn opposition to humanity’s baser urges is rooted in personal tragedy and we see his well-meaning struggle to protect his town at all costs. The compassionate objection towards others merely following his lead as they attempt to repress imagination and creativity only proves his confused. It’s a performance that transcends the film’s otherwise lack of importance, the centerpiece to a thinly veiled look into the power of emotional blindness, spiritual corruption, and the difficult choices we need to make to get back on track.