You know how you’ll be flickin’ around on the TV on Sunday afternoon — or better yet, sitting there passively while someone else flicks around, so that you aren’t even held responsible for the shit you end up watching — and you land on a total piece of cheese from the ’80s, and you sit there goofing on it, and after a while you kind of go, “Y’know, this isn’t actually all that bad”? Well, that happened to me with Footloose. This, I grant you, is probably one of those films you can only appreciate on a dull Sunday afternoon when you land on it randomly. But even with that in mind, I was a little surprised that I actually enjoyed it. Have you rented Footloose lately? Do you know anyone who has? No and no. Everyone’s going in for the ’80s revival, but nobody wants to see actual ’80s movies. That’s too close to home. Then you have to look in the mirror and say, “I, and everyone else in my school, actually went to see this.”
First of all, the difference between retro-’80s ’90s movies like Grosse Pointe Blank, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, and The Wedding Singer and actual ’80s movies is that most ’80s movies had shitty music. The modern ’80s-flavored movies all have killer soundtracks drawn from the best New Wave bands. Movies like Footloose have … Deniece Williams and Kenny Loggins. Kenny Loggins’ theme from Footloose was used in Romy and Michele as a joke. I rest my case. There are exceptions: the soundtracks for Valley Girl and Fast Times at Ridgemont High still hold up today, and the soundtrack for The Last American Virgin was the only good thing about it. But the new ’80s movies flatter you with false nostalgia for the cool music you should have been listening to back then, but weren’t. Real ’80s movies confront you with the stark truth of “Almost Paradise” and “Danger Zone” and “Axel F.”
Second, there was no irony in the ’80s. Footloose rehashes, without shame, the oldest of old premises of teen musicals. Take a hunky outsider (Kevin Bacon) and drop him into a narrow-minded town. Add one depressed minister’s daughter (Lori Singer) whose brother died in a car accident, so the minister (John Lithgow) had dancing and rock ‘n’ roll banned from town. (Why? The kid didn’t die from dancing or Sammy Hagar — he went off a fuckin’ bridge.) Sprinkle with what Roger Ebert calls Semi-OMV (semi-obligatory music videos) where Bacon dances to “I’m Free” and teaches Chris Penn to dance to “Let’s Hear It for the Boy.” Add Singer’s dickhead boyfriend, who exists solely to fuck with Bacon every couple of reels. All of this is presented seriously, not with a postmodern wink.
Which is refreshing these days, and which might explain why I enjoyed it. Footloose was the last of the early-’80s trilogy of major MTV-dance-movie hits, and I’d say it’s the best. The other two, of course, were Flashdance and Staying Alive, which critics made fun of even back in 1983. Footloose wasn’t exactly a critical fave, but it didn’t try to be hip and it had a relatively light touch, with recognizable human beings on the screen. You can’t say that about the aggressively shitheaded Staying Alive or the laughable Flashdance, the latter of which got dissed in The Full Monty (“flashy tits”) fourteen years later.
It was Chris Penn who won me over. The future Nice Guy Eddie (“I dunno who’s shot, I dunno who’s not”) steals the movie from the future Six Degrees guy (thanks to Penn, anybody from Reservoir Dogs could be linked to Bacon in two steps). At the time, Penn was still struggling to get out from under his brother Sean’s shadow — a situation he didn’t help by starring in The Wild Life, a forgotten wannabe-Fast Times (Cameron Crowe wrote both). In Footloose, Penn comes into his own as a good-hearted shitkicker who’s quick to fight but slow to dance. When girlfriend Sarah Jessica Parker wants to dance at a club and Penn sits there knowing he can’t, his quiet regret makes the moment more affecting than it has a right to be. Bacon befriends Penn and teaches him rhythm, and since Bacon’s character is named Ren, I amused myself by renaming Penn’s character Stimpy. At the end, when Penn hit the dance floor and joyfully copied Travolta’s disco stance, the moment came when I laughed affectionately and said, “Y’know, this isn’t actually all that bad.”