Footloose, the 1984 film from Herbert Ross, is a sharp and fun critique of control set in a small American town. There is a remake out now that I haven’t seen. In the original, there is depth to the criticism and the characters aren’t just cut-outs designed to dance their way into our hearts. As dance movies from the 80s go, Footloose is one of the very best.
The first thing to note is that Ross is a more than capable director. He directed Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Play It Again, Sam and The Sunshine Boys, among other films, and his hand is on the mark with Footloose. There are a number of shots that are purely beautiful, like the visual of Ariel Moore (Lori Singer) when she starts the game of tractor chicken.
Kevin Bacon stars as Ren McCormack, an out-of-towner from Chicago now living in the small town of Bomont with his mother (Francis Lee McCain), uncle and aunt. Living in the small town takes some getting used to, especially because of the presence of a hardcore group of conservatives that impose their will on the town’s youth. There is no dancing, drinking or drugs. The dancing ban particularly bothers Ren.
At the core of the harsh legalism of Bomont is the Reverend Shaw Moore (John Lithgow). He is a conflicted figure, mind you, and he tempers his fire and brimstone preaching style with a relatively delicate relationship with his wife (Dianne Wiest) and a difficult relationship with his daughter Ariel. When the students want to have a prom that includes dancing, Ren takes up the task and stands up to the conservative townsfolk in an effort to show them that moving his feet is not the evil it is made out to be.
Footloose works because it gives us deeper characters than the genre usually calls for. Lithgow’s Moore is iconic for a number of reasons, but the Dean Pitchford script happily places him outside the realm of caricature. Lithgow has to play a hard line at times, but it’s never anything too over-the-top and the character is never beyond saving. He has a clear soft spot for his family, even as he works with some inherent confusion and hypocrisy. Particularly telling is his attitude toward burning books.
Bacon’s Ren is a capable catalyst for change. Footloose is interesting in this regard because the buttons of rebellion are pushed with a school dance. Ren appears to come at it from a very basic point of view: he just wants to dance. He doesn’t necessarily see himself as a vehicle for change, but he’s not afraid to push if it means that he gets his way. He’s also trying to fit in to a new situation.
There’s also the concept of abuse. Ariel is hit by two men and the way she handles herself in each respective incident is telling. Singer’s portrayal is spot-on in both cases, appropriately fierce and subtle when called upon. She is the proverbial wounded angel, living out her rebellion by “kissing” a lot of boys. The heartache when she tells her father, in church no less, that she’s not a virgin is profound on multiple levels.
Obviously the music of Footloose is worth mentioning. The Kenny Loggins tune is iconic (apparently replaced by a Blake Shelton redux in the 2011 flick) and Deniece Williams’ “Let’s Hear It For the Boy” is also apt. “Almost Paradise” is a cheesy slice of adult contemporary radio-friendly schmaltz, but it somehow works in the white tee world of Footloose.
All in all, this is a must-see – especially if you have designs on checking out the remake. There’s a lot more going on here than first appears and Ross gamely juggles the elements well. Nothing is overpowering, but Footloose does have a lot more to say than you might imagine.