There are two good reasons why director Craig Brewer’s knee strummin’ small town dance drama Footloose, starring Dennis Quaid, Andie MacDowell and a cast of relative limb flingin’ unknowns, feels remodelled and outdated, like an old vase given a fresh lick of paint or a sun-bleached picture hung with a shiny new frame.
The first and most obvious is that it’s a faithful remake of a film made almost two decades ago. None of the important story elements from the 1984 Kevin Bacon vehicle have changed, much of the dialogue remains the same and even the clothes and cars maintain a striking resemblance despite the film’s now contemporary setting.
The second is that the new Footloose, irrespective of its cheesy dialogue, cut-out characters and overall air of giddy celebration, is now a relatively sophisticated commentary on something twice as old as the original film: the war on drugs. And no – you don’t have to be high to spot it. Substitute dancing for drugs and, with the right kind of eyes, the film carries striking political and social observations.
Based in the small Bible belt American town of Bomont, Georgia, Footloose opens with a group of young people having the night of their lives: there’s beer, singing, dancing, tomfoolery. They hop into a car, chirpy and chatty, and moments later collide into a truck. Everybody dies. The small town community are devastated.
We progress to a close-up shot of Reverend Shaw Moore (Dennis Quaid, in a role originally played by John Lithgow) who gravely intones that no parent should have to deal with this kind of tragedy. By keeping the camera close, Brewer cleverly maintains the assumption that the Rev is addressing a church congregation.
He’s not. Moore is addressing the town council chamber, where local laws are determined and where he is a major powerbroker. The point is succinctly made that in Bomont church and state are inseparably entwined. In response to the tragedy the chamber’s law-makers pass a knee-jerk ultra strict collection of new laws, among them a curfew, a ban on loud music while driving and, most outrageously, a ban on dancing in public.
Moore talks of music and dance as a soul-corrupting force forever tempting the town’s youth. That argument feels preposterously old-hat for a reason: it’s now to be taken on an allegorical level thanks to Brewer, whose previous work includes steamy films about a reformed pimp (Hustle and Flow) and a nymphomaniac tied by chain to a radiator (Black Snake Moan).
Roll a few years forward and the town’s young people, repressed but drawn to a now forbidden fruit, don’t stop dancing. They gather and boogie in car parks and abandoned warehouses and boogie on with more fervour and in greater numbers than ever before. They’re handed bootleg CDs as if they were bags of drugs. Dancing is now underground, away from the eyes of authorities.
Protestant churches behind the Prohibition movement in the US early last century believed alcohol consumption would decrease after successfully lobbying congress to pass the Volstead Act of 1919, which prohibited:
…manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States…
Instead, alcohol consumption went through the roof. Hair salons, butchers and pet shops doubled as afterhours honky-tonks and the then underground booze industry, freed from regulation, spawned a criminal underbelly and gave rise to colourful figures such as Al Capone. Prohibition, a spectacular failure, was repealed in 1933. The war on drugs — declared by President Nixon in 1971 — rages on.
In an interview broadcast in May this year on The 7:30 Report, Former Supreme Court judge Ken Crispin, on a promotional tour for his book Quest for Justice, pulled no punches about his opinion on whether or not the war on drugs has been successful. His words fit Footloose’s commentaries like a glove:
All the way around the world the countries that have the most rigorously enforced drug laws tend to have the highest rate of usage….Not only have they got steadily worse but they’ve got worse in the countries that have pursued it than in the ones that have adopted a more liberal approach.
Read that paragraph again and substitute “countries” for “towns” and “drugs laws” for “dancing laws.” Hey presto: the dancing scenes in Footloose, which Brewer handles with frenetic aplomb, as bodies flail and jab and flap about, represent drug and alcohol consumption.
In the film’s only direct depiction of narcotics, the new-to-town protagonist Ren (Kenny Wormald, previously played by Kevin Bacon) is almost arrested for possession of a joint he neither wanted nor asked for (a scene not in the original film). It’s a fleeting vignette of a “clean” person caught by happenstance or sheer bad luck in a culture they wanted no part of. If Schapelle Corby is innocent, here’s a scene she’d connect with.
It’s not just the dancing that spins out control in Bomont. The plot’s sequence of events suggests the town’s repressive laws indirectly give birth to new subcultures of reckless behaviour. Pro-drug legalisation advocates may voice similar arguments in the context of outlawing substances.
Instead of drinking, partying and pashing, the town’s youth embrace more dangerous pastimes. There are two key scenes that suggest repressive regulations designed to make life safer for young people have inadvertently led to far more precarious situations.
In one, Ren is peer pressured into racing against fellow students — not with cars but old rundown buses. They whiz around in laps, and in an accident caused by faulty breaks collide and explode. In another the sexy daughter of Reverend Moore (Julianne Hough) stands on train tracks and plays chicken with it until Ren pushes her out of harm’s way seconds before the mighty mechanical beast whizzes by. How she expected to win is anybody’s guess.
These two scenes also occur in the original film. Tellingly, an earlier risk-taking sequence was cut for the new version. Near the beginning of the orig we watch a womqn riding in two cars at the same, a foot in each as they soar down a highway while she woots and cheers. In the remake, extreme moments of recklessness are saved for after the new laws are passed. This is a clever move by Brewer: linking new regulation with new kinds of behaviour.
Ren evolves into a political spokesperson for the left, the yes-we-can man with fresh ideas espousing the need for change and thus, a danger to the Established Order. His campaign for change begins after he is issued a summons to appear in court for playing music too loudly in his car. His arrival in Bomont carries whiffs of Marlon Brando from The Wild One, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper from Easy Rider, James Dean from Rebel Without a Cause.
The crucial difference is: Ren has a cause. And it’s overtly political.
“Let me tell you something about the law,” he says. “It isn’t set in stone. Laws are meant to be challenged.”
Challenge them he does, both informally -– by encouraging friends and acquaintances to join him on a philosophical level — and formally. In one deliciously cheesy scene, Ren, at the council chamber, that sterile law-passing place we absorbed near the beginning of the film, arrives well prepared, quoting cherry-picked bits from the Bible to (while many viewers inevitably try to hold back their laughter) support the tiem immermorial art of dancing.
This is more than a right-back-atcha to Reverend Moore, who listens and contemplates Ren’s words glumly but thoughtfully. The scene makes a point about how religious doctrines can be used for political purposes in an Orwellian, doublethink sense: the Holy Book as a source all too often capable of arguing for and against the same issue.
A quick Google search provides plenty of web pages that claim the Bible endorses, for example, marijuana, though conservative Christians would likely argue otherwise by reciting different verses. Footloose suggests that mixing church and state creates a confusion of subjective/religious reasoning and literary interpretation, with enormous capability to confuse and distort.
So what does a film so easily written off as a body bouncin’ celebration of stickin’ it to the man ultimately say about the war on drugs?
In broad terms Footloose is a cautionary tale about reactionary politics, about the potential for a remedy to become a poison. More specifically, it argues for a harm minimization based approache to drug legislation while tinkering uncertainly on the edge of suggesting an end to prohibited substances.
Ken Crispin is an advocate for the legalisation of narcotics. The reasons the former Australian Supreme Court judge holds his beliefs are outlined in detail in his book. In May he was quizzed by Kerry O’Brien, asked whether he comprehended the abhorrence the general population would have when responding to the suggestion of narcotic legalisation (that abhorrence is represented in Footloose through the reaction of the vast majority of adult characters) and Crispin said:
I understand that abhorrence completely. I share that abhorrence. I came to this conclusion incredibly reluctantly. The simple fact though is that the war on drugs has failed…things have got steadily worse.
Reverend Moore, too, stubbornly arrives at his own conclusion in Footloose, and at the end of the film allows the kids a big dance shindig. Muddying the waters is how it eventuates, i.e. through a legal loop hole: the party takes place just on the outskirts of town, where local laws don’t apply. Therefiore Brewer’s film criticises current regulation but is not prepared to advocate the whole nine yards.
Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, whizzing down the freeway with the wind blowing in their hair and a warped incarnation of the American Dream powering their bikes and psyches, were shot dead by gun toting conservatives, a sudden, violent end from rusted-on rednecks.
Footloose, on the other hand, is cautiously optimistic.