Footloose remains one of my favorite movies of all time, despite veering awfully close to being terrible for most of its run time. But why has it stayed there? It owes most of its endurance to the magnetic presence of Kevin Bacon, currently keeping The Following from being unwatchable. Few lead performances have ever been quite so charming.
This is indisputable. I also think it has one of the best soundtracks ever, though your mileage may vary, depending on how much cheesy ’80s pop you can stand. But this shouldn’t be enough to make it a regular watch for anyone.
So why is it for me? It’s because Footloose – in which Kevin Bacon’s outsider tries to make dancing legal again in his new town – is emblematic of the fight against legalism in the Christian church. As John Lithgow’s pastor eventually comes to realize, burning books or banning rock music doesn’t make anyone a better person. In fact, it just creates an endless cycle of judgmental attitudes. “After you’ve burned these, what then?” he asks a member of the congregation who’s started a bonfire at the local library.
Growing up in the Bible belt, avoiding popular music and staying away from theaters and TV was stressed as an important part of staying on a righteous path. But early on, I knew this was mostly nonsense, even as I saw friends break their CD collections in front of me. Lots of people left the church I grew up attending because the music pastor dared to add guitar and drums to the worship service. Ridiculous, right?
So I continue to cheer when Ren quotes the book of Psalms during the town council meeting, reminding the extremely religious community that dancing is considered a blessed form of celebration. And I still want to get up and dance during the final number.
The fact that this movie can still provoke this reaction while remaining the most ridiculous, disjointed ’80s movie this side of Xanadu is even more impressive. The movie is evenly divided into heavy-handed melodrama and dance routines. In my most recent viewing, most of the senior class looked like the unruly teens the town believed them to be. But the adults looked even more cartoonishly villainous than I remembered.
In the age of Tumblr, I am shocked this movie is not the subject of more GIF-sets. This is a movie in which Kevin Bacon’s Ren, in a fit of frustration, goes to a dark mill to do gymnastics. Gymnastics! And there’s a chicken race with tractors!
There’s also an ugly side to this movie. Lest we forget, Ren’s love interest Ariel (Lori Singer) is clearly mentally ill. She tries to commit suicide twice in front of other people – both times by standing in front of an enormous moving vehicle –though this is judged in the movie as a sexy cry for attention.
As is sadly typical of movies then and now, two of the strongest performances are stuck in the least-written roles. Dianne Wiest kills it as Vi, the strong-willed wife of John Lithgow’s fire-and-brimstone Rev. Moore, yet she disappears for long stretches of the movie. Frances Lee McCain also has some—but not nearly enough—good scenes as Ren’s single mother. At least the late Chris Penn provides the bulk of the comic relief as the flat-footed, rhythmless Willard.
My hope is that more people will re-discover the energetic ridiculousness of the original and forget the cynical homage of the remake, no matter how good looking the cast. It’s currently on Netflix and Amazon right now, so it’s the perfect time to cut loose and appreciate another over-the-top artifact from the ’80s.