Alright, now we’re talking! Seeing “Footloose” last night at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles brought back a lot of great memories. This was one of the many movies I saw back at the Melody Theater in Thousand Oaks, California when it was still in existence. It was a ratty theater, but it allowed me to take in such classics as “Peter Pan,” “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “The Goonies,” and “The Karate Kid” among others. I remember checking it out all those years ago like it was yesterday. It was me, my older brother, and our babysitter (I forget which one) sitting up fairly close (but not too close) to the big screen. There were two teenage girls sitting a few rows behind us who wouldn’t shut up during the movie and were dancing around in the aisles when the big musical moments weren’t even on the screen. Of course, the worst was yet to come as this was all before the age of cell phones and endless texting.
“Footloose” was showing as part of Phil Blankenship’s New Beverly Midnights, and he has been doing these Saturday midnight screenings for a while now. He has put up such movies like “Big Trouble In Little China, “The Delta Force,” and “Dirty Dancing.” Everybody was in the 1980’s mood as they tried to recreate the time of endless hairspray and the age of walkmans and giant ghetto blasters. The movie was preceded by a trio of dancers coming up to the stage dancing to Kenny Loggin’s theme song which has long been burned into our collective consciousness. That got a good portion of the crowd pumped up. We were then treated to a bunch of trailers from musicals of the past like “Fame, ” “Dirty Dancing,” and “Xanadu” (what’s the deal with that one anyway?). We were more than ready for some 80’s retro magic.
The movie follows Ren McCormack (Kevin Bacon in his breakout role) as he has just moved with his mother into one of the small white bred cities of America where black people are conspicuously absent. Ren soon comes to find that music and dancing have been banned in the town, and he ends up leading a group of teens in an attempt to get the laws abolished, and to get the senior class at his high school to get a senior prom that has been denied to them for far too long. On paper, the premise sounds kind of stupid and ridiculous. Banning dancing and music? C’mon! People can dance in private and listen to music on their walkmans without the rest of the overly conservative town spying on them. But this law has created an overwhelming sense of repression that is just causing a lot of stupid things to happen like people burning books and getting rid of those arcade games at the local diner (bastards). Of course, we all know what’s going to happen by the movie’s end.
“Footloose” is a movie that simply could have been a big music video, and this movie was released just before MTV came into existence. Indeed, this movie has many musical montages that are designed to look like music videos, hence spawning one of the greatest film soundtracks ever. Granted, watching “Footloose” again after all these years, there are some moments you can’t help but laugh at. There’s a lot of dancing by white people in this movie where it looks like their feet are nailed to the floor. I remember even myself dancing like that at junior high school dances. But the thing that age has not taken from it are its heart and spirit which have survived intact and have not been destroyed by the days of hair metal.
This movie really had a big effect on me when I saw it back in 1984. It was moving and inspiring in spite of its somewhat ridiculous plot. It inspired me to do better things with my life and left me feeling in a way that most movies don’t make me feel these days. Now, many years have past and I am a lot more cynical and bitter about the ways of the world, but “Footloose” still affects me in a way that I hope I never forget or lose after having watched it hundreds of times. After a couple of decades, it is still endlessly entertaining even while the passage of time has made parts of it laughable.
Director Herbert Ross does a great job of capturing the feel of a tiny little bible belt town in the middle of nowhere. Nothing in the movie ever feels like it was staged on a Hollywood backlot, and even the clichéd characters feel down to earth despite us knowing how they will react. Herbert also doesn’t let the soundtrack overwhelm the whole movie, and it never just exists for its music video moments. There were other movies like this made in the 80’s, and not as many succeeded as “Footloose” did. Having been a former ballet dancer and choreographer, Herbert Ross was a natural to direct this movie, and he keeps the movie free of clichés that would have screwed it over.
Kevin Bacon became one of the big sex symbols of the 80’s after making this movie, and it took him a lot longer to be taken seriously as an actor. What bullshit! This movie could have made him look like a pretty face and nothing more, but Bacon is too good an actor to let that happen. There is a reason why he still has a very successful acting career, let alone that famous little game called the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Even recently in “Frost/Nixon,” Bacon still gives every role he plays a solid conviction, and he is always a reliably strong presence in film after film. As Ren, Bacon is believable and never hams it for effect in the movie’s key dramatic moments. He plays it from the heart just like he should, and even if he didn’t do all his own dancing here, there is no denying that this is a white boy with rhythm!
Then there is Lori Singer, and I had such a crush on after watching the movie. She’s great here as the preacher’s daughter (never an enviable role or character in movies), Ariel Moore. Lori’s character has some strong dimensions as we discover that her crazy acts of hell raising seek to cover the pain of her brother’s death and which represents her endless desire to escape her small town. That moment where she is standing between two cars going at least 40 MPH remains one of the scariest moments I had seen as a kid. Of course, this was before I really came to understand the concept of stunt doubles. I wish we would have seen Lori Singer in more movies. Aside from “The Man With One Red Shoe” with Tom Hanks (he does not like that movie incidentally), the other movie she made a sizable impact on me in was Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” where she showed that she is as lovely a cello player as she is an actress.
As Ren’s best friend Willard Hewitt, the late Christopher Penn steals the movie away from Kevin Bacon on several occasions. Sean Penn’s younger brother to many, Chris more than stood apart from his brother in roles like this one, and he gave us a character that is very much rooted in the small town that Ren has unintentionally invaded. Like his character, he couldn’t dance to save his life, and seeing him learn how to dance gave the movie some of its most memorable moments (talk about method acting). That whole montage done to the tune of Deniece Williams’ “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” is sold completely by Chris’ performance, and he makes us believe that Kevin Bacon could actually succeed in teaching him to dance in record time.
I still miss Chris, and I wish he didn’t die so young. Rest in peace Chris…
Sarah Jessica Parker is also in the movie as Ariel’s best friend Rusty. She is as perky and delightful in the role, although I kept wondering why she didn’t make a move on Ren McCormack. She keeps telling Ariel how dreamy Ren is, and she sees this a lot sooner than Ariel does. I also never completely understood her attraction to Willard, but I guess that didn’t really matter to me much. The moment in the bar where she finally jumps up to join Ren and Ariel on the dance floor is great, and you can’t blame her for not wanting to seem like her feet are nailed to the floor.
When John Lithgow’s name came up in the opening credits, or whenever he appeared onscreen as the Reverend Shaw Moore, boos and hisses erupted from the audience at the New Beverly Cinema. That kind of bummed me out at first, but then again, they were booing the character and not Lithgow. This is one of my favorite performances of his from the 80’s along with his work in films like “The Manhattan Project.” This was also made back before he started to really ham it up as an actor in everything else he did. Shaw may seem like the villain, but as the movie goes on, you see that the people whose “spiritual well being” he looks after are even more closed off and ignorant than he is. One of my favorite moments of his in the film is when he talks to one of the townspeople who’s all pissed that the Reverend didn’t support him ousting that English teacher. Shaw says he didn’t think they were in any position to fire him, and the guy he’s talking to says:
“It doesn’t take much time for corruption to take root Reverend.”
“How long is that? About as long as it takes compassion to die?”
As wrong as Lithgow’s character is about rock and roll music, he is not simply a one-dimensional character designed for the audience to despise. We see what fuels his approval of music and dancing bans, and of how that loss has clouded his mind as to what is really wrong with his town. Lithgow makes you believe in this character when he comes to see that he needs to let the children of this town live their own lives, and to let certain things go. John is great to watch in this movie, and only an actor of his caliber could sell a term as ridiculous sounding as “sexually irresponsible.”
John also gets great support from two time Oscar winner Dianne Wiest who plays his wife, Vi (where did they come up with that?). She serves as the Reverend’s conscience and helps to pull his head out of his ass and remove the stick that is firmly placed up his ass. Among the other ultra-conservative adults in the neighborhood, Dianne’s character is the much needed voice of reason and fairness in a place where change constantly seems like a deadly threat.
Granted, I hate Lithgow’s character when he shuts off that boom box playing the infectiously groovy Shalamar song “Dancing In The Sheets.” Seeing all the kids at the diner groovin’ like crazy and hearing that Atari game playing along with the rhythm of the song is one of my favorite moments of many. Seeing everyone come to life in such an amazingly boring town is a joyous scene in any movie regardless of how cheesy it may seem today. That was one of the few moments where I joined the New Beverly audience in their booing of the Reverend. What an asshole!
It’s a shame that the movie didn’t have subtitles for when the songs came on. Audience participation felt mandatory after a bit, and people were cheering and applauding each musical number that came on. It didn’t matter that the whole crowd had seen the movie god only knows how many times. In the end, none of us had seen the movie on the big screen in years. Sharing in the widespread enthusiasm made seeing the movie again all the more enjoyable.
The only real downside of watching the movie at the New Beverly Cinema was that the print of it was in very shoddy condition. My issue is not with the theater, but with Paramount Pictures in their lack of effort in getting us a better print of “Footloose.” There were a lot of jump cuts, and moments we looked forward to seeing were lost and left us groaning in utter frustration. The film broke down just a few minutes after it started during the opening sermon of Reverend Shaw, making us believe that the biblical powers that be were still acting to sabotage the heinous world of rock & roll as they saw it.
“John Lithgow did it!” said one audience member. There are probably still many towns across this country that ban music and dancing like the one here. The fight against rock and roll has never really stopped. I guess that makes “Footloose,” while stylistically dated, timeless in the themes it covers. The choice of music may have changed to hip-hop, but the fight for freedom of expression and celebration remains the same. People still need to understand that what you resist, you empower.
I still remember seeing “Footloose” when it first came out like it was yesterday, and there are many moments that still stay with me. The game of chicken with tractors where Bacon accidentally becomes victorious (YESSSS!!!!), the dancing in the bar between Bacon and Singer (the slow dance to “Waiting For A Girl Like You… Shit, I’m drooling, excuse me…), the kissing scene between Singer and Ren (Bacon was a lucky bastard), the scene before where Ariel’s jackass of a boyfriend Chuck beat her up (that almost made me cry), I could go on and on. The audience also made their favorite moments known as well, and the females just had to go nuts over the shower scene with all those bare butts. Well, everyone is entitled to their opinion.
Seriously, as cheesy as it may seem after 25 years, “Footloose” is still a kick to watch. I do not look forward to it being remade. Repeat, I do not look forward to it being remade. Remaking “Footloose” has the same amount of sense as it did to make a sequel to “Dirty Dancing,” and we all know how that turned out. While the audience couldn’t help but laugh at certain parts, there were other strong dramatic moments that kept them silent for minutes at a time. Jump back you say? Well, you probably weren’t there. For an 80’s movie to do despite us looking at it and wondering if we really dressed like that back then, that says a lot about its staying power.
Now if you will excuse me, I have to kick off my Sunday shoes…
**** out of ****