Welcome back to 80s Bits, the weekly column in which we explore the best and worst of the Decade of Shame. With guest writers, hidden gems and more, it’s truly, truly, truly outrageous.
There is absolutely no reason that Footloose should have worked. Coming off the massive success of Flashdance, Paramount was looking for another song and dance hit to capture the glitzy zeitgeist of the 1980s, except this time it had to appeal to the boys. Originally slated as a Michael Cimino production, who had won an Oscar for his Vietnam film The Deer Hunter in 1978 before almost singlehandedly killing the Western genre (not to mention his career) with Heaven’s Gate, he was eventually dropped from the project, along with a young Madonna who also audition for a lead role. Yet this disaster in the waiting went on to gross over $80 million at the box office, and create a genuine legacy by spawning a Broadway production and a recent remake.
Ren McCormick (Kevin Bacon, Crazy, Stupid, Love) moves with his mother from Chicago to the small town of Bomont, where they intend to live with Ren’s aunt and uncle. After making friends with local Willard (Chris Penn, Reservoir Dogs) and falling for the rebellious Ariel (Lori Singer), Ren discovers that the city council and Ariel’s strict father, Reverend Shaw Moore (John Lithgow, Rise of the Planet of the Apes), has banned dancing and rock music in the town. Ren resolves to fight the power and the city fathers and bring cutting loose back to Bomont.
It would be very easy to dismiss Footloose as a cheap cash-in on the dance craze with a music video aesthetic tacked on the front end. Indeed, back in 1984, Roger Ebert described the film as “a seriously confused movie that tries to do three things, and does all of them badly”. Yet this ignores the basic strengths of the film, in that it is the same little rebel in a sea of copycats that Kevin Bacon’s Ren is amongst the kids of Bomont. Loosely based on the real-life events of the town of Elmore City, Oklahoma, Footloose has always remained a great ‘rebel with a cause’ film because it questions the ultimate conservative institution: the church. Represented by the deliciously creepy John Lithgow, he sees the world in black and white. “If our Lord wasn’t testing us, how would you account for the proliferation, these days, of this obscene rock and roll music, with its gospel of easy sexuality and relaxed morality?”. Ren’s world, as the representative of the youth of America, is one of living colour.
Kevin Bacon is the breakout performance. With Friday the 13th and Diner already under his belt, Footloose catapulted the young actor into a place that would see him only six degrees away from any given person in Hollywood. Not even a sequence in which he dances his aggression away in an abandoned warehouse can diminish his manliness one iota. Lori Singer, best known at the time for her role on the Fame TV series, proves to be a bit of a one-trick pony in her role here. Rather it is the late, great Chris Penn who proves to be a better companion for Bacon, goofily learning to dance in one of the best musical montages of the decade. Academy Award®-nominated Lithgow sews the seeds of the villain roles he would portray later in the 1980s, such as his role the same year in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.
Yet it is the soundtrack that is the real star here. With a title track that is arguably more famous than the film, the Kenny Loggins tune gives a buoyantly joyful edge to the opening and closing of the film, and Deniece Williams ”Let’s Hear It for the Boy” also reached the #1 position on the Billboard Charts, and has become a karaoke classic to boot. Similarly, Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero” is said to be the first music-video that successfully promoted a movie while having no movie footage in the video! Again, this is all evidence to suggest that Footloose was more interested in record sales and music videos than in narrative strength. However, whether it was intentional or not, Herbert Ross’ Footloose set out tap into the rhythm of an era and inadvertently captured the zeitgeist in the process.