Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 4, 2008)
After six years in the business, Kevin Bacon became an “overnight sensation” with his star-making turn in 1984’s Footloose. Despite plenty of fine work in the last 20 years, Footloose seems destined to remain Bacon’s obituary credit. Just like John Travolta and another dance-oriented flick, this is the one that will probably always be Bacon’s biggest claim to fame.
Fire and brimstone Reverend Shaw Moore (John Lithgow) acts as the pastor of the main church in the tiny midwestern burg of Bomont. He rails against the evils of rock music and other modern “sins”. Into this setting steps transplanted Chicago high school boy Ren MacCormack (Bacon) along with his mother Ethel (Frances Lee McCain), both of whom come to live with her sister’s (Lynne Marta) family. They meet Moore’s wife Vi (Dianne Wiest) and daughter Ariel (Lori Singer).
Despite - or perhaps because of - her father’s stern ways, Ariel becomes a real wild child, as she demonstrates when she pulls a stunt on the highway. She climbs out of one moving vehicle onto another and boldly straddles the pair while traveling at high speeds.
In the meantime, Ren and Ethel get to know their neighbors, and they see the depths of their conservatism when the local parents discuss books they want to ban. We see their thoughts in action when Ariel risks parental retribution as she plays a pop music tape and dances at the local drive-in burger joint. The Reverend shuts down this impromptu shindig and quietly lets Ariel know of his dissatisfaction.
As he blasts the cheese metal of Quiet Riot from his VW Bug, Ren encounters chilly stares from his new classmates on his first day at the local high school and he also runs afoul of the kids. However, he makes a friend of country boy Willard (Chris Penn) when he doesn’t back down from a challenge, and he also tries to make some inroads with the sexy Ariel.
As Ren gets to know the other kids better, he learns of the local ban on dancing. After a fatal accident a few years earlier, the elders made bopping illegal and obviously frowned on other related activities. Ren gets an even stronger message when the cops pull him over simply for playing his Quiet Riot tape. (Can’t blame them for that - crap metal should be illegal!)
Ren angers Ariel’s boyfriend Chuck (Jim Youngs), who challenges him to a game of “Chicken” with dueling tractors. Mainly because his shoelace gets stuck to the pedal, Ren wins this contest, and that apparently makes him the new hot commodity to Ariel, who enlists her friend Rusty (Sarah Jessica Parker) to scout out the city boy. Ren remains disliked by many others, however, and continues to encounter antagonism from all sorts of locals. The rest of the film follows Ren’s attempts to deal with all his opposition, get to know Ariel, and also maintain his individuality. This culminates in Ren’s decision to flout authority and hold a dance in town.
Since I was 17 when Footloose hit, I guess I was part of its prime demographic, though it always seemed much more popular with the girls in high school. Footloose didn’t scream “chick flick” and it maintained pretty good appeal across gender lines, but I maintain a general impression that it made most of its money from suburban teen girls who swooned for the quirkily handsome Bacon.
All of that was fine and dandy 24 years ago, but does Footloose hold up well? No, I can’t say that it does. Mainly a cotton candy confection that aspires to social relevance, the end result feels badly dated and like little more than just another teen movie.
It does become inevitable for a film like this to come across as a product of its time, for it features too much then-current material to rise above those elements. Surprisingly, it’s not the fashions, hairstyles or even music that strongly dates Footloose. Sure, those don’t look modern, and some of the songs are laughable, but heck, they sounded crummy to me back in the day; the tunes of Footloose were always low-grade pop cheese.
The aspects of Footloose that most mark it as a product of the mid-Eighties revolve around its philosophy and politics. The ongoing debate over obscenity in music was at a high back then. In fact, only a couple of months after the opening of Footloose, Prince would release Purple Rain. Among other works, its infamous song “Darling Nikki” would soon inspire Tipper Gore to push for warnings on albums, and the atmosphere of Footloose reflects that aura. It features a community that takes even more restrictive measures, and it wants to provide salient commentary on that faction.
It doesn’t. Footloose pays lip service to the free speech elements but it clearly doesn’t really care. All it wants to do is tell a trite boy meets girl story and toss out as many bad pop songs as possible.
In that regard, it succeeds well. If you like cheesy pop numbers, stiff characters and dull situations, then Footloose flies. I can’t say they do anything for me, though, and unlike flicks such as Saturday Night Fever or Grease, the production numbers fail to prosper. Ironically, a lot of that stems from the realism of the segments. All the actors who dance do so in ways that capture the skills of real young adults, so we don’t get the sparks Travolta threw off in the earlier hits.
While I normally dig realism, here that trend undermines Footloose because it simply makes the dancing scenes boring. I don’t want to slam Bacon because I like him as an actor, but as a dancer, he’s not exactly Travolta - or even Christopher Walken. He hoofs passably through the dance segments and that’s about it, and no one else manages to excel either. Even the use of doubles to show more dynamic moves doesn’t work. Sure, this makes the sequences more believable, but it leaves them without spark or panache. We never get caught up in the characters’ joy, which just leaves us with leaden dance scenes.
Footloose boasts a surprisingly qualified cast, as in addition to Bacon, we find notables such as Lithgow, Parker, Penn, and double Oscar-winner Wiest. Unfortunately, the simplistic script hamstrings all of them. It doesn’t leave them much room to create intriguing or distinctive characters, though I will admit it makes the Reverend more three-dimensional than anticipated; he doesn’t come across as the predictable ultra-conservative I expected.
Perhaps I’ve come down too hard on Footloose, as even with its sociological and political overtones, it remains a light romp at heart. I’d feel compelled to go easier on it if it succeeded in that spirit. Since the movie mostly offers a dull and plodding piece, however, I can’t say much positive for it.
Plagiarism footnote: 1984 was a bad year for originality in movie themes. Lots of people know that the title tune from Ghostbuters baldly ripped off Huey Lewis’ “I Want a New Drug”, but I think “Footloose” borrows very liberally from the James Gang’s 1970 hit “Funk #49”. Intentional? Probably not, but the two songs sound an awful lot a like, so much so that some connection – whether conscious or not – seems very likely.