Can’t Keep a Good Kid Down
Fifties B movies never went away. Mostly, they transformed themselves into noisy, bloody summer blockbusters and wannabes that become A movies only by dint of their enormous budgets, or mysteries, thrillers, and romances that go straight to cable or video.
But what about that peculiar brand of 50’s B movie, the Juvenile Delinquent film? Where did that disappear to? Television, morphed into Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, Beverly Hills, 90210, and select episodes of Law and Order? Were all those JDs absorbed into the criminal element of action movies?
I discovered a straight-outta-the-50s juvenile-delinquent B movie recently, one I’d seen and loved as a teenager when it was new in 1984. Like that coelacanth discovered in the 1930s, Footloose is a living fossil, a holdover from a time when kids were cool and adults square, and the drive-in burger joint was the place to be seen after school.
Ren MacCormack (Kevin Bacon: Hollow Man, My Dog Skip) isn’t really a delinquent — he’s not bad, and he’s not even drawn that way. But as a Chicago city-slicker outsider in the tiny mountain West town of Bomont, he is danger so personified that he might as well have horns and smell like sulfur. Because Bomont is run by book-burning religious fascists, headed by the obnoxious Reverend Shaw Moore (John Lithgow: Don Quixote, A Civil Action), who rules with an iron Bible and has taken it upon himself to see that the soul of every single one of his parishioners — which seems to be the entire town — is squeaky clean.
So Bomont in stuck in the Pleasantville 50s. The girls all wear little sweaters and knee-length skirts; drag racing and getting girls pregnant are the guys’ biggest hobbies. “Do you read much?” is an insult; “obscene rock and roll music” is banned; and the “spiritual corruption” that is dancing is absolutely verboten, seeing as how it’s “fraught with peril.” It’s kinda like The Handmaid’s Tale, only about dancing instead of sex.
Into this ACLU lawsuit waiting to happen comes Ren, with his head-bangin’ rock music and his suspiciously un-teenage-boy-like propensity for getting down with his not-so-bad self. Of course, Bacon was 26 years old when he played this high-school senior, which explains why he is so cool and poised in precisely the way that teenaged boys are not. And since his big dance scene — mad at being stuck in this lousy, stinkin’ town, he races around an abandoned warehouse in an angry, Flashdance-y kind of way, with a beer and a cigarette and a ripped sweatshirt, just to punctuate how butch he really is — is shot in shadows that conceal his face, we pretty much know that this is not really a high-school senior or even, indeed, the actor himself busting those groovy moves.
Not even the fear of God or John Lithgow on a rampage can stifle The Kids, though, and before long Ren has them all riled up, especially the reverend’s daughter, Ariel (Lori Singer), who is — as I believe is required of all offspring of men of the cloth — a hellion. Ren the Avenging Dancer takes it upon himself to fight for a senior prom and, worse, induct his rhythmless new pal, farmboy Willard (Chris Penn), into the mysteries of the dance, because it impresses girls. Which means we’re subjected to horrifyingly catchy tunes like “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” and Kenny Loggins’s infamous theme song… songs that will ring in your head for days, and you’ll find yourself tapping your toes and humming them as you wait on line at the supermarket or something. Perhaps rock ‘n’ roll is Satan’s music.
For sheer, silly fantasy, Footloose can’t be beat. Oh, sure, Reverend Moore’s eventual conversion to Nice Guy is too abrupt and too easily won, and we never really learn why Ren and his mom ended up in this town full of sheep in the first place. But if you were a teenager when John Cougar was still just John Cougar and leg warmers were considered fashionable, this will bring back memories of high school. Maybe you don’t want to dredge those up, so I figured I’d warn you.