(Herbert Ross, USA, 1984)


Note: This text was originally part of a 1990 essay, “Some Kind of Wonderful: An Introduction to the Contemporary Teen Movie”. For the surrounding discussion of the teen genre as a whole, a 74-page PDF of heretofore unpublished material written in 1989-1990 is now available exclusively to supporters of my Patreon campaign for this website: www.patreon.com/adrianmartin


Syntax and Semantics of a Teen Movie


The credit sequence of Footloose presents a classic piece of disembodied teen movie spectacle: a dizzy montage of dancing feet, each shot introducing the new connotation of a specific contemporary dance style, and a particular kind of stylish (or deliberately unstylish) footwear. This montage, unplaced as it is at the film’s opening, is a purely semantic display of youth culture on parade – it could easily be snipped out and used as a music video. It was not, as it turns out, even part of the director’s initial plan: this prologue was solely conceived, supervised and assembled by film’s talented editor, Paul Hirsch (a veritable teen movie veteran, renowned for his work with Brian De Palma, John Hughes and many others – see his fascinating 2019 memoir, A Long Time Ago in a Cutting Room Far, Far Away).


When the fiction proper begins, we are immediately plunged into a setting redolent of old-fashioned values: a semi-pastoral, American small town. This arouses the emotional memory of not only a certain kind of reality that we may have experienced ourselves – sleepy, conservative, country towns – but, even more crucially, the memory of a certain kind of small town story (either sentimental or melodramatic, or both) in old films or classic popular literature – Meet Me In St Louis (1944), Our Town (1940), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Peyton Place (1957, followed by a TV series 1964-1969), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), or on TV The Waltons (1971-1982) and Little House on the Prairie (1974-1983).


This appeal to an older kind of story is crucial. For, if the contemporary teen movie aims at a reconciliation of diverse audiences of diverse ages, it does so by handy recourse to story-types that are themselves all about the reconciliation of opposites, such as the romantic comedy and the small town drama. While the former story-type is concerned with the reconciliation of individuals, the latter is more concerned with the reconciliation of an entire community.


Footloose follows the classical syntax of the small town story to the letter. It spends a long time setting out absolute, polar opposites. On the one hand, there is the youth of the town, lead by a troublesome city boy, Ren (Kevin Bacon); they only want to dance and be “wild”. On the other, there is the sternly religious, adult community, lead by the local pastor , Rev. Moore (John Lithgow), who also happens to be the father of the girl (Lori Singer as Ariel) to whom Ren is attracted. (Psychoanalytically, this is a typically Oedipal situation: a young man who must defy a prohibitive father-figure in order to get the woman he desires.)


Due to several teenage deaths in the past that occurred (so the adults believe) because of unbridled, youthful licentiousness, dancing has been outlawed in this small town. The film creates many moments that express the seemingly insurmountable contradiction of these two worlds: for instance, when a spontaneous dance party at the burger joint ignited by the music pumped from a ghetto blaster (a typical teen movie spectacle) is brutally cut short by the sudden appearance of Rev. Moore turning off the tape!


Eventually, this syntax proceeds to its next stage. The characters (and groups of characters) positioned at such extremes are brought progressively closer to a mid-position. This happens in various dexterous ways that repay close study. First of all, Footloose detaches the ultimately good, central characters (on both sides of the semantic divide) from their initially extreme positions. This is achieved by bringing to the fore some really bad characters who stand for the undesirability of any extreme. Thus, on the teenage side, Ren and his friends are disassociated from the wanton dudes whose youthful energy is merely destructive and possessive; while, on the adult side, Moore must distance himself from the religious fanatics who burn school textbooks, Nazi-style, at the drop of a hat.


The major syntactic move can now take place: a series of actions or gestures in which the main characters are seen to reciprocate or share certain attributes and desires. Moore’s wife Vi (Dianne Wiest) reminds him – you guessed it – that he was once youthful himself, and that his lust for her was innocent and holy, not Satanic. Ren’s coup at a meeting of the local council (where the whole community is present) is to argue the case for dancing by quoting appropriate passages from the Bible (Ecclesiastes: “There is a time to dance”!). When a school prom is finally allowed, dancing has, for the teens, lost all its dirty connotations and duly become clean, innocent, robust fun, sanctioned under the benevolent eye of the adult community.


Given such a backwoods setting (tractors, fields, etc., are emphasised in the mise en scène), and such a deliberately old-fashioned syntax, one might well wonder how Footloose manages to include any up-to-date popular culture material on its properly semantic genre-axis. It does so stealthily, but surely. Using the device of Willard (Christopher Penn), a hick country boy who is Ren’s best friend, the film smuggles in a schedule of youth-culture training: this character is taught how to dance, how to move, how to wear a Walkman, how to dress, how to behave with women.


This itinerary allows, beyond the opening credits, another classic, much-recycled montage, cut to Deniece Williams’ “Let’s Hear It For the Boy” – a scene bursting with the offhand “fluidity” of roles (men dance with men, small children with adults … ) that the teen genre excels in, without much public, critical recognition of the fact. (The corresponding scene in Craig Brewer’s close 2011 Footloose remake uses the same song and copies many of the details, but stages it in the time of karaoke!)


Contemporary dance music, inevitably, floods the soundtrack at every possible opportunity. Finally – as if by magic, or osmosis – when the prom is on, the initially shy and clumsy teenagers of the town suddenly hit the floor, energised by the music, excelling in the latest body popping breakdance moves! This, in a nutshell, is a powerful pop culture fantasy: once your body consumes the right music and the right style, you are invigorated, animated – transformed. It is only a short step from here to the teen horror films (like the A Nightmare on Elm Street series, 1984-2010), and the supernatural teen fantasies (such as Legend, 1985) – where such bodily wish-fulfillment is even more literally materialised.

MORE Ross: Undercover Blues

© Adrian Martin March 1990

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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