Monday, October 10, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Footloose" (1984)

For such an iconic film, "Footloose" is a strange bird of a movie. Most people remember it as a rock 'n' roll flick about a kid who brings back dancing to an uptight Midwestern town where the local preacher has successfully had it banned. The songs, the now painfully dated clothes and dance moves and the Rebellion Lite mood have it positioned in most people's minds as a delightful confection.

Basically, it's thought of as a music video -- back when MTV still played those things -- with a hip teenage movie wrapped around it.

Those are the parts that interested me least upon watching "Footloose" for the very first time. (Yes, I know, how can any self-respecting Generation Xer have missed it? The same way I've never seen "Dirty Dancing": They were movies about dancing at a time I was doing everything in my power to avoid it. I was probably trying to sneak into some horror flick instead.)

What I liked most about the film is the stuff most critics seemed to hate at the time of the film's original release: The more contemplative sequences devoted to the preacher, Shaw Moore. I think it's one of John Lithgow's best performances, as a conflicted man of God who swings between righteous certitude and soul-crushing doubt.

Quite frankly, I would love to have seen the same story told from the perspective of the preacher: A man who's devoted his life to binding the community together after the tragic loss of his own son, only to see the entire town and even his daughter stirred up by some cocky young interloper.

Diane Wiest also has a terrific role as Moore's wife, a woman whose position as preacher's wife requires her to linger in his shadow, but isn't afraid to give him counsel and try to nudge him toward the light of modernity.

I feel compelled to point out that Lithgow was only 38 years old when "Footloose" came out, while star Kevin Bacon was 25. Bacon's co-star Lori Singer was a year older, which made her a mere 12 years younger than the actor playing her father, and only nine years older than Wiest, playing he onscreen mother.

Two years earlier, Bacon had gotten his big break in Barry Levinson's "Diner," in a story of a bunch of guys facing post-college angst. Now here he is trying to look 17 -- though I'll admit the transformation is more convincing than a lot of stuff you see.

(At least Chris Penn and Sarah Jessica Parker, both memorable in supporting roles that kick-started their careers, were each 18 when the film debuted.) 

I think the reason studios usually decline to cast actual teenagers in high school movie is that they don't feel they can find actors that age who have the acting chops to pull it off. That, and most people tend to romanticize those years, forgetting the pimples, awkwardness and depression that are what most people actually experience. Better to wait until they're 25, their complexions have cleared up and their bodies filled out.

Filled out, that is, except for Singer, whose costumes emphasized her scary-skinny physique. There are several scenes where she looks downright anorexic.

Singer's role as Ariel, the prototypical rebellious preacher's daughter, is all over the map. She acts sweet and virginal around her parents, but becomes a near-psychotic hellion while hanging with her friends. The early sequence where she balances with one foot each on two speeding cars as a tractor-trailer barrels down on them is totally nutso. As is the bit where she stands in front of an oncoming train screaming her head off, waiting for Bacon's new kid in town, Ren, to save her.

There's actually not all that much dancing in "Footloose." Ren has a big solo dance scene inside the trainyard, where he begins leaping and swinging all over the place like a champion gymnast, that's totally ridiculous -- and not just because the cutaways to Bacon's (several) body doubles are so ham-handedly obvious.

Director Herbert Ross, who had a long and productive career including "The Goodbye Girl," "The Sunshine Boys" and "Steel Magnolias," lets the tone of the movie slip and slide all over the place. The main character, Ren, is actually one of the least interesting people onscreen -- not due to Bacon, but simply because the script doesn't really give him much to do. He ends up falling back on a more or less generic James Dean type of persona, but less angry.

Too many false notes doom "Footloose," giving me little hope this week's remake will be any better.

2 stars out of four

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