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What is the Definitive 1980s Movie? Footloose?

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The movies of the 1980s had their own flavor, too, and that is what I want to get at. What is the DEFINITIVE 1980s movie?  That might be an impossible question to answer, but over the next couple months I will take a look at some key contenders to the title.  But first, as always, some criteria to narrow the search.

Criteria:

  1. There must be a 1980s song attached that defines it the movie when you see it. In other words, when you now hear this song, you must think of the movie before anything else.
  2. I think the theme of “Triumph of the Underdog” must be present somewhere in the movie. This theme was almost as common as the overuse of the montage in 1980s movie.
  3. Must contain a montage sequence.
  4. The movie must have introduced us to an actor in a star-making performance.  That doesn’t necessarily mean it is the first movie the actor made, just their “star-making” performance

Today’s Contender:  Footloose (1984)

In trying to decide which 1980s dancing movie would be my representative for “Best of the 80s”, I narrowed it down to three.  This wasn’t so easy- the 80s provided A LOT of dance-oriented movies.  The Breakin’ movies, Fame, even Chris Atkin’s star vehicle A Night in Heaven could all be considered contenders.  But the three I narrowed it to were Dirty Dancing, Flashdance, and Footloose.

All three were phenomenons, all three came attached with iconic lead performances, all three rocked some pretty important (at least to the 1980s) soundtracks. So what gives Footloose the edge?  Actually, it wasn’t that hard to choose- with respect to its 80s importance, I don’t really like Flashdance, and until they make Footloose:  Havana Nights, Dirty Dancing will never be as fun as watching Kevin Bacon vs. the uptight denizens of a conservative Utah town.

You see, the religious right in the town (led by preacher and de facto small town Big Cheese John Lithgow) just hates rock n’ roll and, especially, dancing.  And when big city teen Ren (Bacon) arrives, the classic “butting of disparate heads” scenario inevitably occurs.  Because I’ll tell you what… Ren McCormick needs to dance.

Typing the above paragraphs illuminates the silliness of this plot, but man, does Footloose work.  I remember seeing this movie at the theater, and as the movie emptied as the credits rolled, the audience members were aping the various dance moves they had just witnessed.  The only other time I remember seeing this happen was after The Karate Kid, when everyone was doing his or her best Crane Poses

You can’t plan that kind of audience investment; Footloose is a “lightning in a bottle” situation, which is probably why the inevitable remake keeps disintegrating.  Trying to get something as stupid as the premise for Footloose to work if a fool’s task, and yet, in 1984, the elements came together and work it did.

But does it fit the criteria for “Best 1980s Movie”?  Oh, Sweet Jesus, it sure does.  The only difficulty is picking which iconic song or which motivational montage sequence.  This movie is chock-a-block full of pure 1980s magic- it just may be THE 1980s movie.

Iconic song?  Ever listen to this soundtrack?  Like it or not, the movie is lousy with the FM hits of 1984.  “Let’s Hear It For The Boy”, “Dancing in the Sheets”, “Holding Out For a Hero”, “Almost Paradise”… in another movie, any one of these songs would be “the song.”  However, this movie also contains a little Kenny Loggins number called “Footloose”.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is THE song. True, the movie and the song share a title, but it is impossible to listen to the opening strains of this (still) wedding classic and not envision either a) a bunch of feet in a variety of footwear and stockings shuffling over the opening credits, or b) Kevin Bacon charging down the stairs in his maroon tux, screaming “What’s everyone sitting around for?  Let’s Dance!” thus kicking off the climactic dance scene.  Either way, Loggins’ “Footloose” is most iconic song from this movie, and probably of Loggins’ career.  And this guy wrote a lot of soundtrack material.

Nobody, save Ariel and his best buddy Willard, likes Ren McCormick at first.  He blasts Quiet Riot from his Volkswagen Beetle, he mouths off to cops, and he is far too comfortable on the uneven bars at the school gym. Plus he’s got that big city hair and he says shit like “Jump Back!” when he is incredulous at something. Ren clearly has some odds to overcome, not the least of which is wooing the town rebel away from her sociopathic boyfriend and her preacher father.

He does so, and in style.  It isn’t easy, though.  He has to win a game of chicken on tractors, endure threatening bricks through his family’s window, and engage in a violent session of punch dancing.   Through it all, Ren never doubts the transformative power of dance, and eventually convinces the town of the same. “Dance Your Ass Off” indeed.

I do love the final montage in this movie, where a bunch of kids who have never had the chance to dance prove themselves remarkably adept at it. I mean, really, that kid who does the robot?  Where did he learn that?  He’s fantastic.  Still, this isn’t THE montage, is it?  No, you gotta go with the “Training Willard To Dance” montage, set to Deniece Williams’ “Let’s Hear It For The Boy”.


A word about Chris Penn here.  Yeah, he was a lot thinner when he made this movie.  He went on to be in a lot more movies, usually in a much fatter version of himself.  I posit, however, that he was never more likeable than he was here.  Penn perfectly fit the “best friend” role that was essential in a movie like this, and he even had his own mini-arc, where he needed to learn to dance in order to keep his girlfriend Rusty (played by Sarah Jessica Parker).

Not to mention that he credibly learned to dance, which is to say, he still kinda sucked, even after Ren taught him everything he needed to know. Juxtapose this against that final scene again, where all the kid instantly become pros, and what you have is Penn bringing a bit of verisimilitude into the proceedings.   He also sells the hell out of the montage, committing to every ridiculous task Ren insists upon.

In terms of the breakout star, that’s easy:  one Mr. Kevin Norwood Bacon.  He had been in a few things before this- Friday the 13th, Animal House, and Diner come to mind- but this movie blew some Bacon up.  Apparently, after Footloose, Bacon was only offered dance movies, and you can see why.  I have mentioned how ridiculous Footloose is, haven’t I?  Well, it is.  With a different lead, audiences would have never gone for it, but Kevin Bacon hits exactly the right notes.  Believe me, it can’t be easy to do that “punch-dance” scene (mocked nicely in Hot Rod).  The fact that Bacon pulls it off is a testament to the man, and one of the reasons that he has become one of the most reliable actors out there.

I’m not sure there is a 1980s movie that can top Footloose for pure 80s magic.  Any thoughts?

Previous entries:  Rocky III, Top Gun, The Breakfast Club

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