Author’s Note: Yes, there is a remake; no, I never saw it.
Recently I visited my Mom’s hometown in South Georgia to see a sick relative. Although the relative in question is home from hospice (not in a ‘You don’t need hospice!’ kind of way, more a ‘There’s nothing to do but wait for the inevitable’ kind of way) it was overall a stressful and trying trip, especially this close to the holidays.
While driving down the little dirt roads and looking out over gray fields full of rusting farm equipment, dilapidated trailers covered with weeds, and yards full of chickens and goats, I recognized that I had always associated the area with the rust belt, even though it’s quite a ways south of that region. Any ’80s movie depicting economic decay, agricultural stagnation, and declining small-town industry always made me think of that area, and I’m sure residents would agree that the imagery is accurate, if not agree with the sentiment. In fact, part of the reason I never saw Footloose is because I already knew the story; hell, being a city kid who’d go to the country to visit a couple times a year, I lived it. I also picked it up from pop culture references and a joke in the Elvira movie, and there’s really only so many times the ‘big city vs small town’ pastiche can be explored. But I knew it to be a much-loved classic, and when I got home from a depressing visit with relatives, I thought I’d watch something kind of fun and upbeat.
I have to say, I was very impressed! The story and characters had surprising depth, and I really appreciated the complexity of the conflict.
Naturally, the premise is simple: city kid comes to a small town where partying is forbidden. No dancing, music, and singing are allowed, as the church pastor, Shaw Moore, played by John Lithgow, believes them to encourage drug and alcohol abuse and sexual promiscuity. What was great about the film was how brilliantly it showed teenagers being teenagers without those particular temptations; kids are shown smoking weed, drinking and having sex anyway. Moore’s daughter, who he believes to be virginal and innocent but doesn’t trust, is one of the main participants of the debauchery.
Although Kevin Bacon is the person most associated with the film, at the heart of the story is the relationship between Pastor Moore and his secret hellraiser daughter, Ariel, played by Lori Singer. Pastor Moore’s son and a few other kids were killed in a car accident after a night of drinking and partying, and his response was to lock down the town in the hopes of protecting his daughter. However, his refusal to talk to Ariel about it has led her to engage in thrill-seeking behaviors and a flirtation with danger, like dating a lunatic redneck and dabbling in crazy-ass stunts.
Ariel was a fascinating character in her own right and was given a great deal of screen time as a result. Part of the reason she acts out is because of her inability to process the grief over her brother’s death, and her father’s slowly constricting grip doesn’t help. She longs to escape the small town and has plans to go to college, which her shitbag boyfriend dismisses.
The aforementioned Bacon is affable as always as Ren McCormick. Right away he’s established as a thinker, as he mentions his liking for the soon-to-be-banned book Slaughterhouse Five, and does a fine job as the audience proxy as he reacts to the stifling atmosphere of Bomont.
Dianne Wiest, always a treat in anything, is also fabulous as Pastor Moore’s wife, and it’s her intelligent, thoughtful observation that helps lead Moore to the realization that teenagers gonna teenage, whether the radio is on or not. I particularly liked her chemistry with John Lithgow, as they really seemed like a tender married couple onscreen. I’ve always liked Wiest, although I’ve never seen her play anything other than Someone’s Mom. It’d be neat to see her as, I don’t know, an aged, embittered barfly or something. Or Lady MacBeth. Or a mob boss! That’d be fun.
In fact, hats off to the film for daring to show characters with depth instead of resorting to shrill stereotypes. But for a few dumb rednecks in the background, all the characters had some kind of interesting inner life. Even the townspeople bent on burning books were willing to listen to their Pastor chide them for their misguided intentions, which makes for a nice change and a message that nobody is so far gone that they can’t be reached.
Well, except for Ariel’s asshole boyfriend. That guy was AWFUL.
I’d like to take a moment to remember Chris Penn, who plays Ren’s friend Williard. I know him best as Sheriff Dullard (“That’s Dollard!”) from To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything Julie Newmar and from lots of movies where he wore track suits. I have to admit that I recognized his voice first, as he looks very different in Footloose. If they had made Captain America in the 80s he would have had a serious shot at playing Steve Rogers. Fun fact: he literally learned to dance for this movie, and the learning-to-dance montage scenes were added for him. I had forgotten that he passed away, and was glad that I now know him from as such a charming character in this.
I do have to admit that Footloose took me a little while to get into, mostly because of the music: it’s the most vanilla of 80s music that has since been played to death in commercials, other movies, and parodies. Usually you can rely on the 80s to have some Cure, Joy Division, or other post-punk selections or something to mix things up, but Footloose is a straight up pop music laundry list. Still, I heartily enjoyed it and thought it was worth a watch. And of course it is all but impossible to remain depressed during the final scene!
Footloose is available on Instant Watch, and only 2 years ago celebrated its 30th anniversary!