Sometimes Roger Ebert was just wrong. I still enjoy his reviews, and he is often worth citing, but that doesn't mean he is infallible. Regarding Footloose, he writes:
"Footloose" is a seriously confused movie that tries to do three things, and does all of them badly. It wants to tell the story of a conflict Ina. Town, it wants to introduce some flashy teenage characters, and part of the time it wants to be a music video.
Also, Roger writes:
I seriously doubt a town like this exists anywhere outside of standard movie clichés.
The town of Henryetta, Oklahoma, has a law--dating back to 1979 but still on the books as of last year--restricting where public dances can happen, and apparently the law "watered down an earlier ruling that banned all public dancing regardless of location." The ordinance forbade "dance halls" from being located within 500 feet of any church or school. And, the film was supposedly inspired by Elmore City, also in Oklahoma, which had a lot dating back to the 1800s that prohibited dancing within the city limits. Rod Lott, writing for the Oklahoma Gazette, explains:
Members of the junior class--responsible for planning the annual, dance-free banquet--set out to change the law keeping them from exercising their burnin' yearnin' to kick off their Sunday shoes.
Class officers, including Leonard Coffee and Rex Kennedy (who Lott says were the basis for Ren McCormack (Kevin Bacon)) approached high school principal Dean Worsham, "who personally detailed how they should make a presentation to the school board and explain their need for a prom."
In terms of the problems in Bomont in Footloose, this next part is interesting. Lott explains:
After all, they reasoned, because there was no dance, students would ditch the banquet and head for neighboring towns, sometimes getting killed in the process because of drunk driving and whatnot.
This is what they do in Bomont, and the spark for all of their overbearing rules including the ban on dancing came from just such an accident, with Ariel's older brother being one of those killed in the "infamous Crosby Bridge accident".
Leonard Coffee tells Lott:
We were told the school board was afraid things would get out of hand, so they were condemning us before we ever did anything wrong... Living in the Bible Belt, I understood their viewpoint, but I didn't see why that should keep those of us without religious convictions from dancing. But once we all started talking, we had the support of several teachers and our sponsors, and it snowballed from there.
The town was bitterly divided. Lott explains, citing current (in 2011) mayor Rachel Bailey, who was a "bummed-out student at Elmore City High's junior-senior banquet" in 1977:
The Methodists were the only church in town in favor of letting the students dance the night away, while the Baptists and the Church of Christ preached that dancing would lead to dancing in the sheets.
Lott doesn't say how many people were on the school board--today, there are five people on the board of the Elmore City-Pernell School District, so probably there were five--but the vote was a tie. School board president and rancher Raymond Temple, father of "Mary Ann Temple-Lee, member of that now-revolutionary Class of '81", cast the deciding vote. The story spread, eventually being covered by People magazine. Songwriter Dean Pitchford (who won an Oscar in 1981 for the them from Fame) was "looking for a movie to support the music and not the other way around" and he read about Elmore City. He visited the city, almost missed it because it was so small, spent a week "visiting the high school, hanging out with the students, attending prayer meetings and talking to shopkeepers and other locals". And, though he was a songwriter, he wrote the script himself. Director Herbert Ross "wanted to take the Oklahoma out" of the film because, Pitchford explains:
[I]f we set it in a specific time and place, the opportunity could arise where you can point to it and say, 'That doesn't happen anymore.' So, we changed the turf--there's no reference to a real town--and let the whole story float above a date and place. It never crash-lands in reality.
Pitchford would write a few more scripts years later, but mostly he stuck to music for movies.
Roger Ebert, of course, got into journalism in college in the sixties. That any town might still hold onto such conservative values in the 1980s would likely have seemed ridiculous to him, had he heard about it. But, I guess he didn't hear about it. Instead, he suggests, "If the movie had only relaxed and allowed itself to admit how silly the situation is, it could have been more fun."
It is silly.
But, it is also despairingly serious, the situation in Bomont. And, as you can see with Elmore City, quite realistic. I wrote yesterday about growing up in that cult of a church I grew up in. They didn't ban music, but we did have to get every song approved for schools dances (and it was briefly a potential big deal when we let Guns n' Roses' "November Rain" play all the way through that last, more rock and roll section at the end) at the prom my junior year.
"Instead" of playing the situation for the silliness that Roger thinks it is, Roger says, Footloose "gets bogged down in the peculiar personality of the preacher, who's I played by [John] Lithgow as a man of agonizing complexity." For me, the Reverend Shaw Moore is a great cinematic character, at once a villain and eventually a sort of savior. He is Bomont's Fisher King. His wound becomes the town's wound. Until he can manage to heal, the town cannot manage to heal. In fact, it is the moment when the town goes too far, and the Reverend Moore recognizes as much that he steps out of the antagonist box, and the conflict's end has effectively been written.
"Footloose" makes one huge, inexplicable error with the Lithgow character. It sets him up as an unyielding reactionary, and then lets him change his mind 180 degrees without a word of explanation. In one scene, the preacher's daughter confronts her dad in church and announces she isn't a virgin (the movie never remembers to tell us whether she really is or not). The preacher turns livid, starts to scream, and then is interrupted by news that they're burning books down at the library. In the very next scene, the preacher is arguing against the book burners--and before long, without any meaningful transitional scenes, he has caved in to the idea of the dance. It's cheating to set up Lithgow as the enemy and then turn him into a friend without a word of explanation.
Watch any of the exchanges between the Reverend and his wife (Dianne Wiest). His exchanges with that daughter, Ariel (Lori Singer). His obstinance is being accepted (because it comes from grief) and challenged repeatedly. This is film. We don't need it to explain the Reverend's change, just show us that it is reasonable. And, I suppose I've been watching a different film than Roger saw all these years. From his opening sermon to the early conversation with Ariel while he is working on a new one, this character is just what Roger calls him, "a man of agonizing complexity". And, this is a negative?
Early in the film, there's an exchange in which Ren calls Slaughterhouse Five a great book and a classic, and his... uncle (?) counters, Tom Sawyer is a classic. The former has been banned, as has the latter. In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled in Island Trees School District v Pico:
[L]ocal school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to 'prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.'
Reverend Moore is not a fire and brimstone preacher who ignores the world, but since his son's death five years ago, he fears what the world does, what the world is, what teenagers are in the world today... as it were. The oft repeated complaint about kids today, and all that. He's both mired deep within that simplistic attitude and existing quite smartly above it. The book burning is quite clearly the turning point for him. We see him change. We see that he didn't really need to change. He was as mixed up about things as the town was, until suddenly, in an epiphany born in the smoke of burning books, he realizes more exactly who he is, who the townspeople are, who we all are. His God gave man free will, so that he could do wrong and learn to do better. The teenagers of Bomont need the chance to do bad things. As Reverend Moore says in his final sermon in the film, "If we don't start trusting our children, how will they ever become trustworthy?"
It is not cheating to turn the Reverend into a friend. It is drama. It is not a standard movie cliché that Bomont is oppressive. It is unfortunately realistic.
And 8-year-old me saw that town as something... Not wrong exactly, but what it was doing was wrong. I don't, however, think I equated Bomont to the church around me until much later.