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nostalgia fact-check

Nostalgia Fact-Check: How Does Footloose Hold Up?

The Nostalgia Fact-Check is a recurring Vulture feature in which we revisit a seminal movie, TV show, or album that reflexively evinces an "Oh my God, that was the best ever!" response by a certain demographic, owing to it having been imprinted on them early. Now, years later, we will take a look at these classics in a more objective, unforgiving adult light: Are they really the best ever? How do they hold up now? We've already reconsidered a number of once-beloved entertainments. This week, with the remake of Footloose arriving in theaters on Friday, we consider the original.

Background: After bullying pledges in Animal House and talking tough in Diner, Kevin Bacon made barn-dance history with 1984's Footloose. The movie, about a small-town community that bans dancing, rock and roll, or any fun at all, launched Bacon to mainstream stardom; the movie made $80 million and the famous barn scene became an oft-referenced and parodied eighties cultural staple. (As did the soundtrack: In addition to the titular Kenny Loggins song, "Footloose," it also introduced "Let's Hear It for the Boy" and "Holding Out for a Hero" to the world.) The 2011 Footloose remake, from Hustle and Flow director Craig Brewer, is due in theaters on Friday.

Nostalgia Demo: Mid-eighties teen movie enthusiasts of either sex, or younger girls who watched Footloose as a part of the Nineties Slumber Party Movie Canon.

Nostalgia Fact-Check: If you attended slumber parties between the years of 1985 and 1998, you have seen Grease at least twenty times. For some reason, despite the raunchy lyrics and the pelvic thrusting, our parents felt that Grease was an appropriate movie to screen for a group of 10-year-olds, and so we watched it weekly, memorizing the words, mimicking the hand-jive, staging reenactments of "You're the One That I Want" at recess. When we tired of Grease, we moved on to Dirty Dancing, which felt more mature but still resolved with a pretty pink dress and a climactic dance scene. From there, some slumbie gangs graduated to Molly Ringwald, or even Clueless, but my personal birthday gatherings zeroed in on the rest of the Eighties Dance subgenre. Flashdance, Footloose, The Cutting Edge (dancing, but on ice and in the nineties): If the movie had dramatic backflips, I was in. I'd like to say this trend abated as I hit high school, but I'll admit to having seen Center Stage, Save the Last Dance, and Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights in theaters. (Okay, that last one was in college.) When the trailer for the upcoming Footloose was released, I, to the dismay of my co-workers and friends, (half-)jokingly declared it my most-anticipated film of fall 2011. Sure, it looks silly, and yes, we all need to join the fight against Hollywood Remake Disease, but a dance movie is a dance movie. And Footloose is a classic.

Or so I thought. I wish I could tell you that small-town teen angst and a healthy dose of Denise Williams adds up to a gripping cinematic experience in the post–Step Up era, but no: This is a boring movie. It shouldn't be; the pieces are in place: crazy preachers, book burning, tractor Chicken, several schoolyard fights, Kevin Bacon's wild hair. The soundtrack includes several eighties jams (the aforementioned "Holding Out for a Hero" and "Let's Hear It for the Boy," in particular), and there's one insane car-straddling stunt on a Midwestern highway that's surely inspired some movie-banning of its own. But for a story that's supposed to champion youthful expression, there's a weird lack of energy, like no one in Bomont cares about dancing, or censorship, or really anything at all besides being sightly sanctimonious to one another after church on Sunday. And that's all they do: go to church, and then snipe at their families. Repeat.

“Just start dancing,” one of my co-watchers yelled sometime during the fourth never-ending sermon that John Lithgow (as Reverend Moore) delivers to his daughter. Maybe the premise should have been a hint — dancing is banned, we get it — but Footloose turns out to be a surprisingly dance-less undertaking. Where are the moves, I kept wondering, and when does the whole town break out into the Electric Slide, like I remember? Never. Aside from the famous Bacon barn routine and a delightful Chris Penn montage, there's almost no notable choreography until the very last scene — and even then, it's the "dude doing the Worm" antics of your average wedding dance circle. All in all, I counted approximately ten minutes of superior, enjoyable strutting in a movie that's all about trying to resurrect the joy of the dance. Either I watched the barn scene on loop, or my preteen memory has been super-imposing Kevin Bacon’s head on Dirty Dancing highlights; this is the only way I can explain the discrepancy.

To be fair, that barn dance scene still kills. Young Kevin Bacon introduced the world to a number of vital moves: the angry run, the angry pivot, the angry Tarzan swing, and the angry shimmy-off-to-the-side-so-that-the-dance-double-can-take-over. His (or his double’s) hips tell a truth to rival Shakira’s. And the fast-cut leaping toward the end remains a triumph over gravity and believable choreography. It’s mesmerizing, and ridiculous, and hopefully the new version won’t change a thing.

But the rest of Footloose — the dance-less majority — gets bogged down in the struggle between Reverend Moore, the misguided but vaguely sympathetic preacher, and his irritating daughter Ariel. If the movie has a single fundamental flaw — besides the lack of dancing — it is that its makers assumed we might want to understand the dance-banner’s motivations. We don't care about the preacher! He banned dance, we want dance back, the end. [Shuffle ball change.]

Kevin Bacon, at least, understands this. His confused, slightly robotic Ren McCormack is totally uninterested in the idealistic aspects of his fight — witness his stilted Town Hall speech (with the immortal words, "This is our time to dance"):

Not exactly St. Crispin’s Day. His scenes with Ariel are similarly uninspired, though some of that could be attributed to the fact that she is an insane person. But when Ren hits the barn yard, he’s unstoppable. This is perhaps the point of the movie, but the point of the movie is only fun when it involves Kevin Bacon on the parallel bars. (The male gymnastics team is apparently the varsity team in Bomont. Not to harsh on the pommel horse, but Bomont is incredibly weird.)

Bacon and Chris Penn do make for an enjoyable pair, and their exchanges (“You like Men at Work?" "Which men?" "Men at Work." "Where do they work?") suggest Footloose could have had potential as a buddy comedy. Credit also to Penn and Sarah Jessica Parker for being the only two likable natives in a town full of teen hooligans — and to SJP for getting in some Sex and the City–ready fashion tips all the way back in 1984. But the dynamic teen trio has to cede way too much screen time to the preacher and his whining daughter; for every Chris Penn grapevine scene, there are two dull screaming matches at the Moore house. We could have done with none.

Some other stray observations: “Douchebag” was an acceptable PG insult back in the day, and music boxes were an acceptable gift for a new boyfriend. Also, we’ve come full circle in terms of stylish footwear — the opening credits could double as an Urban Outfitters ad. And in case I didn’t make it clear earlier, kids were really shitty in the early eighties. Herewith, a list of the offenses committed by the Bomont teens in this movie: drug trafficking, drunk driving, tractor theft, tractor crashing, picnic sex, assault and battery, brick-throwing, and driving a motorcycle without a helmet. (Even the “good kids” do this last one.)

So the obvious question — and for many people, it was an obvious question even before cataloguing Footloose’s flaws — is: Why on earth would anyone remake a boring movie? I struggled with this question myself; I even reconsidered my preordered tickets. But the original Footloose, though slow in execution, still boasts a fairly genius and true premise: Kids just wanna dance. If the remake will just let them dance, it could actually be an improvement. And since I believe in second chances, and also backflips, I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. Less Talk, More Dancing: If not for this Footloose, then let it be a lesson for the third one. (There will be one, right?)