“When you really look back at it, it’s got more weight than what pops into your mind and what people give it credit for.” Speaking in “A Modern Musical,” a two-part documentary on the new Special Collector’s Edition DVD of that teen dance flick to end all teen dance flicks, Footloose, Kevin Bacon reveals he wasn’t, 20 years ago, so fond of the “movie that changed [his] life.” He loved working on the film, he says, but loathed the heartthrob status it granted him, even going so far as to refuse to pose mid-dance step for People magazine. But he’s not bitter, at least not anymore: “It took me a long time to come around full circle and become comfortable with the fact that I was trying so desperately to be a serious actor, and then I was kind of a pop star.”
Based on the real life struggle for the kids of Elmore City, Oklahoma, to overturn an ancient law in their town banning public dancing, Footloose it about more than just cool kids and their groovy moves. Though very much a pop film, being one the first films to use its soundtrack as a promotional tool, Footloose, as is revealed throughout the DVD’s features, including a short documentary (“Songs that Tell a Story”) and two commentary tracks, one with Bacon and one with producer Craig Zadan and writer Dean Pitchford, has because of its focus on youthful physicality, the acceptance of loss, and innocent rebellion.
That rebellion takes the form of Ren (Bacon), the Chicago-bred rocker and dancer who lands in Bible-belt Bomont, where, he soon learns, rock music and dancing are banned. Folks in Bomont want to out him as a troublemaker because of his big-city background and challenge to Bomont ideals (he calls Slaughterhouse-5, a “classic,” in church, no less). Ren’s not the kind of guy to cause any real trouble, though. He wants what every teenager wants, especially when moving schools and towns. He wants to fit in.
Leading the anti-Ren charge is the Reverend Shaw Moore (John Lithgow), who also happens to be father to Ariel (Lori Singer). Ren doesn’t help his situation by becoming involved with “the preacher’s daughter,” but he can’t help himself — especially as they share a desire to be heard, understood, and allowed to revel in their youth. “There was a time for this law once, but not anymore,” Ren tells the town council when proposing to hold a senior dance within city limits. “This is our time to dance… to celebrate life.” Using scripture to justify his faith in dancing, Ren’s sincerity matches the film’s. And quoting from the Bible helps him get what he wants, because it demonstrates his respect for the other side of the argument.
Ariel’s struggle parallels Ren’s in that they both feel oppressed by her father’s controlling hand, but she lacks Ren’s maturity. Instead of discerning exactly when and how to fight her battles, Ariel rants at every opportunity. She wants her father to know she’s suffering for his mistakes (her brother was killed in an accident on the way home from a rock concert, which instigated the music and dance ban), and that she’s more than just another member of his congregation. Pitchford notes in his commentary that he wanted to showcase Ariel’s need to grow up and her simultaneous self-awareness. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with you,” her father says at one point, when Ariel breaks curfew by a few hours. Head tilted forward, a picture of willfulness, she lets him have it: “There ain’t nothing to do with me, daddy. Like it or not, this is it. It doesn’t get much better.”
Singer, in “A Modern Musical,” says that she “understood better than anybody” what Ariel was going through, having herself been the child of a prominent father (herself a cello prodigy, Singer’s dad is famed symphony conductor, Jacques Singer). Lithgow’s take on Moore’s relationship with Ariel is similarly insightful. His actions, Lithgow says, “have nothing to do with being a minister,” but are about dealing with the loss of his son and the fear of losing his daughter, too.
The notion of Footloose as more than just a dance movie is repeatedly contested on the DVD. Everyone has something to say about the seriousness of the issues raised and the effective ways in which the film dealt with them. Though Pitchford and Zadan seem inclined to ha-ha the film’s many nay-sayers, they can hardly be faulted for showing off. They did what most studio heads told them was impossible: they made “a musical where there was no music allowed.” The actors, too, still love the film, especially Lithgow, who considers it among his best work: “This was during a four year period when I did my best films: Garp, Terms of Endearment, Footloose… and Buckaroo Banzai as a kicker.” He also recalls a story from the set of his TV show, Third Rock from the Sun, in which an extra told him, through tears, that the movie forever changed his relationship with his own minister dad.
Bacon has similar stories concerning the film’s effects, confessing to having spent years paying DJs at parties not to play “that song.” He’s given in to Footloose-love in recent years, though, even adding the song to his own band’s set list. But Chris Penn, who plays loveable bumpkin Willard, might have the best story: he learned one dance for the film and has never forgotten it: whenever he dances, he says, “it’s still the Footloose dance and it has been for 20 years.”
Aside from the dance and the song, Footloose endures because it reflected a certain moment and broader, more lasting themes. As Bacon notes, “You kind of think it’s a silly little dance thing, but the relationship between good and evil, and what morality really is and oppression and human expression and rebellion and the disillusionment of young people and their having to break away from their parents in some kind of way: these are issues that had weight, and some kind of resonance.” The dancing might be dated, but the film is not.