In our Teen Movie Rewind series we explore coming of age stories and teen cinema, looking at the impact of the films themselves and the careers that they made.
When one thinks of Footloose or goes to watch it for the first time, the film that one expects is a light-hearted one featuring a young Kevin Bacon dancing in an abandoned factory, that Kenny Loggins theme song, and quite possibly a funny story about dancing being banned in a small town by an antagonistic John Lithgow.
Strangely, Footloose is simultaneously the film you expect it to be and not, being considerably darker and having a touch of grit to it that might come as a genuine surprise. Key moments and scenes play out in the manner that you expect, and yet some scenes feel a tad more brutal or grittier than anticipated.
Where so many of the biggest teen movies of the era take place in the suburbs of larger cities, Footloose hits you with its feeling of Middle Americana. Rolling mountains and never-ending green fields are featured in many of the exterior scenes, and when it comes to playing a game of chicken, cars won’t do the trick here. Instead, we’re on tractors, although this being an 80’s teen movie, the scene is set to Bonnie Tyler’s ‘I Need a Hero’.
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While the output of John Hughes takes place in the suburbs, larger cities (like Chicago) always feel like they are just within arm’s reach of the characters, but there is something believable about the geography of Bomont, Utah. The film makes use of a lot of location filming, and it never once feels like we’re on a backlot, or near a city for that matter. This has the feel of a genuine small town, as far away from the hustle and bustle of metropolitan America, where small businesses and being working class keep the world ticking.
Directed by Herbert Ross, at one point the film was very nearly directed by Michael Cimino and one wonders what Footloose would have looked if the director behind The Deer Hunter and notorious box office disaster Heaven’s Gate had been helming it. Cimino had captured the feeling small-town Middle America provocatively with the opening act of The Deer Hunter, but it does beg the question of how he might have handled the dancing stuff, not to mention the teen angst. Footloose would likely have been a very different film.
The ‘what if’ question also applies to the casting. We now think of this as Kevin Bacon’s film, one of his big breaks after being one of the earliest victims of the Friday the 13th series, but Tom Cruise and Rob Lowe were also considered, with Cruise turning it down due to filming conflicts with All the Right Moves and Lowe very nearly landing the role due to how good a dancer he was but having to turn it down due to an injury.
Bacon was certainly attractive, but he wasn’t as conventionally good looking as Cruise or Lowe, which makes the rebellious nature of McCormack more believable. Cruise and Lowe have such conventional looks that one could almost imagine them playing characters more comfortable with the larger system, so to speak, and Risky Business saw Cruise play that type of character being pushed out of his comfort zone for the entire movie, while it’s no surprise that Lowe would form the latter stages of his career playing characters working in government.
Bacon just feels more believable as the rebel, with a grit and charm that suited the character more, and grit is something that Footloose has a surprising amount of. The character of McCormack being seen as a rabble-rouser even has its origins in some of the earliest teen cinema. Think of James Dean being a Rebel Without a Cause or Marlon Brando in The Wild One being asked what he’s rebelling against, and McCormack is continuing a trend of Hollywood teen films putting a rebellious teen outsider front and centre. Unlike those movies though, McCormack is on a crusade. A crusade against censorship. A crusade against those who are against dancing.
It’s not The Deer Hunter or any 70’s New Hollywood film in that regard, and it’s not even Saturday Night Fever which very much earned its R-rating by being genuinely adult, but some scenes have the feeling of such movies. Released one year after Flashdance, which popularised a more MTV-aesthetic with its elaborate choreography and glossy approach to basically everything, including sexuality and its own male gaze, Footloose may build towards something approaching a fairy tale ending, but it takes a few darker paths than you might expect to get there.
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Small town suppression and censorship, bullying and abuse are also never far away. Lori Singer’s character Ariel is at the brunt of some intense physical treatment from her boyfriend in one of the most disturbing scenes from the film, that reminds you that this isn’t some PG-rated family film. Having said that, Footloose‘s cinema release in the UK was heavily edited to gain a PG-rating, including the scene where she is beaten up, although the cuts were restored and the film was given an uncut 15 rating for its DVD release. Drug use is very strongly implied, any time that characters are beaten up blood is spilled, and there’s even nudity in the school showers, although, in a subtle subversion of the trope, it’s male nudity as opposed to female.
On top of making a star of Bacon, the film also gave us early glimpses of Chris Penn and Sarah Jessica Parker, and although centred around teen characters wanting to express themselves, it’s also served by complex portrayals of the parents, not least John Lithgow who takes a character that could so easily have been a one-dimensional villain not wanting the kids to have fun and does something more complex and interesting with it. Even his scenes with Lori Singer fizzle with an intensity that feels different from what you might be expecting. This isn’t some father/daughter dynamic breaking apart due to one being conformist and the other not; they are both dealing with the loss of a family member in different ways and their scenes are genuinely well played and dramatic.
Yet, the film is still ridiculous at times; a town meeting sees McCormack utter the line “There’s a time to mourn, and there’s a time to dance” to convince the townsfolk to let the kids have their moment to enjoy themselves, but it commits so fully to its story that it’s hard not to get swept along with it. Critics were sniffy upon release, but it was a box office smash, became a massive hit on home video and is referenced in other movies and television shows to this day, including most recently one very funny joke in James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy.
It might be very much a film of its time and some might scoff, but its combination of dance choreography and choice of great songs on the soundtrack was to prove very influential on how music was chosen and used for future films in the teen genre.