Maybe if I’d seen Footloose for the first time in 1984, or any year close to 1984, I could look it straight in the eye. But when I finally got around to watching it in 2010, I saw double. As a grown-up film-critic type, I saw a movie set in the ’80s that looks better suited to the 1950s. Here was a film about championing rock ’n’ roll and rebellion in their mildest forms. Kevin Bacon stars as a Chicago kid who moves to Middleofnowheresville, USA (actually Boden), a town that’s outlawed dancing and turned rock music into an underground commodity, like Levis in the Soviet Union, but with Shalamar cassettes. Bacon is a good kid, but his love of movement, skinny ties, and Kurt Vonnegut insures he’ll stick out in his new surroundings. So he argues for, and wins, the right to have a dance for teens. Using the Bible. As rebels do.
Footloose acts as if the ’50s never ended, and the mere idea of rock music (even in the form of Kenny Loggins songs) and the notion of kids doing their own thing (even if that thing is holding a prom) were still eyebrow-raising causes that needed champions. Motown, the British Invasion, psychedelia, glam, punk, hip-hop: All that may as well have never happened. The same film could have been made in 1957 with music by Bill Haley & His Comets and Little Richard. (Oh, wait. It kind of was.)
But then again, in 1983, it wasn’t that hard to confuse the 1980s with the 1950s, at least in certain parts of the country. The notion that rock music, any rock music—yes, even duets between Loverboy’s Mike Reno and Heart’s Ann Wilson—posed a threat to America, apple pie, and civilization was still alive, at least where I lived. I remember learning in Sunday school about the slippery slope that would inevitably whisk today’s Michael Jackson fan into becoming tomorrow’s 666-hailing Black Sabbath listener. (And what was the deal with Jackson’s voice? He sang like a girl.) What’s more, rock wasn’t just bad, it was potentially dangerous. Listen to it long enough, and the rhythm of the drums could alter your heartbeat. There’s just no arguing with that kind of science.
I grew up in a part of the world that was Reagan-Right with strong undercurrents of Falwellism. It was hardly a unique place. The 1980s, from where I (and much of America) stood, were at least partly about trying to roll back the clock, turning back the excesses of the 1970s to a purportedly simpler time. You could hear the nostalgia in country songs like Merle Haggard’s 1981 single “Are The Good Times Really Over (I Wish A Buck Was Still Silver),” which yearned for a time before Elvis and The Beatles, and speculated we were “rollin’ downhill like a snowball headed for hell.” Speaking of hell, the devil seemed to be lurking around the corner throughout the decade, which saw the outbreak of moral panic over the allegedly wide spread of violent Satanic cults. One of the main culprits: rock ’n’ roll. Take a look at this mid-’80s report from 20/20. The whole thing’s pretty fascinating, but bits relevant to this discussion begin at the 6:38 mark. (And remember, this is from a news program on a major network, not some fringe religious cable channel):
Time flattens out the past. The pop culture of the 1980s has gotten reduced to a handful of songs and icons, usually combining a synthesized beat with the glow of neon. But it was also a time of fear and regret, an atmosphere Footloose captures well in its own overstated way. It’s a film about a moderately rebellious kid who can’t stop dancing. But it’s also about a preacher (John Lithgow) who, shaken by his son’s post-dancing, drunk-driving death, has decided to keep his whole town safe from harm by terrifying it back into a state of innocence, and threatening hellfire to those who step out of line. He’s a man of his time.
Footloose is, in many ways, an extremely silly movie. For proof, look no further than the climactic prom scene, in which a town full of dancing novices begin the evening with two left feet and end it popping and locking like pros. But it’s also convincingly acted, especially by Bacon and Lithgow. If Bacon suspects he’s in an over-the-top expression of teen angst, he never lets it show, even in the famed expressing-himself-through-dance-and-gymnastics-in-a-warehouse sequence. (True, he has some help from some fairly transparent double work here.)
But Lithgow, then still in the early, pre-ham phase of his career, shoulders much of the film’s dramatic weight. Playing an earnest man of God, he never lets his character become a Bible-thumping cliché. Maybe it’s just that I’m seeing this movie first as an adult, but it seems less like a film about a teen who inspires a town to dance than like a film about a man learning that repression doesn’t work. He’s tried to set a good example for his family and his town. But his daughter has rebelled by turning into a reckless young woman who looks like, in the film’s words, she’s “been kissed a lot.” And the town has taken his lessons too much to heart, and taken to burning books they find threatening. He has to learn to let go and let change happen, even if it means bringing in the terrifyingly bouncy synth-pop stylings of Deniece Williams.
That’s a big theme, and it gets a big treatment here. Footloose isn’t a subtle movie, but it doesn’t have to be. At heart, it’s a musical, albeit one in which the characters hit “play” on their boom boxes and dance instead of breaking into song themselves. Like Flashdance, it comes from a highly successful, though short-lived, movement in which old-fashioned musicals and newfangled music videos found ways to benefit from each other. Though Broadway and Hollywood warhorse Herbert Ross directed Footloose, writer Dean Pitchford provided the driving force. He scripted, and also wrote the lyrics to the nine original songs, all of which are used to comment on the action of the plot, just like in a proper musical. The musical scenes—from the kids jamming to “Dancing In The Sheets” at the drive-thru to the finale—abandon any pretense of realism, and escape into music. And sure, as catchy as those songs are, it’s sometimes hard to see why the kids are getting so worked up about the litest rock known to man. (Unless you count Sammy Hagar, a borderline case at best.) But it’s easy to see how one glimmer of something in the middle of nothing could provide a portal to a bigger world, one accessible to those who simply switch on the radio, move their feet, and stop worrying about the consequences of feeling good every once in a while. If rock makes your heart start beating faster, that’s just a reminder that you have one.