By Aaron Aradillas
Press Play Contributor
Movie soundtracks are one of two things. Most of them are souvenirs, a way of re-watching the movie through music. (Back in 1983, there were reports of moviegoers leaving Adrian Lyne’s soft-core ballet workout Flashdance and going straight to the nearest record store and picking up the soundtrack album.) Others are artifacts, a collection of songs that would seem to indicate what was “in” at that precise moment. (The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack all but came to define mainstream disco music.) Then there are those rare soundtracks that are both. Soundtracks as diverse as A Hard Day’s Night, Less Than Zero, Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting resonate long after their initial release and become a part of the pop landscape.
Then there are the soundtracks to the two versions of Footloose, the white-boy’s-gotta-dance drama that’s become almost a rite of passage for any young person. Footloose is not a pop classic, exactly. (That phrase gets thrown around so often you wonder if it still has any meaning.) With its rudimentary structure, simple storyline and aping of music video editing, Footloose is now part of every young person’s movie-watching experience. Its story of big-city kid Ren MacCormack moving to a small Southern town and fighting the town fathers for his right to dance stands in for the universal desire of wanting to break free from authority. The success of the original Footloose was aided in no small part by the then recent launch of MTV. Veteran choreographer-director Herbert Ross (Funny Lady, The Turning Point, Pennies From Heaven) approached the directing of the film like an old-time pro curious to see what the next generation of dancers and entertainers were up to. He married his skill and wisdom as an old-school Broadway choreographer with the new editing and music stylings of 1980s pop. It worked. Director Craig Brewer, who came of age watching and loving the original version, infuses 2011’s Footloose with his own personal blend of Southern rock and country, and a dash of crunk for good measure. (Brewer is responsible for two legitimate pop classics, Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan.) The soundtracks to both films might say less about the state of mainstream pop music than what Hollywood thinks will make a hit. Taken together, the soundtracks to the two Footloose movies provide a blurry snapshot of the pop world at their respective moment in time.
Consider the title track from the film. The original Kenny Loggins-Dean Pitchford composition is engineered to stick in your head; with its one-two party beat, white-boy guitar riff and sporadic synthesizer squeals, “Footloose” is undeniably catchy, a mainstay of any Happy Hour/Girls’ Night Out playlist. The new version by Blake Shelton feels calculated to be a hit. (If you wanted a hit in 1984, having Kenny Loggins sing your lead single was not the obvious way to go.) Shelton’s version is energetic but uninspired. (You wonder why he hadn’t already made it a part of his encore set list.) By turning the song into an up-tempo countrified number, you realize some of the original’s weaknesses. Like a lot of country music, the emphasis on lyrics trumps the music, which is a mistake with “Footloose.” Part of the fun of the original was not exactly being able to make out the lyrics. The song was more about tempo and catchiness. Shelton’s version overcorrects and you realize that lyrically, “Footloose” is kind of embarrassing. (A better cover of “Footloose” is done by The JaneDear Girls, a female duo whose playful take on the song is not weighed down with the burden of “covering a classic.” Unfortunately their version is only available on the iTunes exclusive “Cut Loose Deluxe Edition” of the soundtrack.)
The original Footloose’s idea of what constituted hard rock is telling. Sammy Hagar’s The Girl Gets Around” is a typical piece of tailgate rock. Hagar, who has always possessed one of party rock’s most underrated voices, positions the song as signaling the transition from ’70s hard rock to ’80s hair metal. The song is used as the theme to wannabe bad girl Ariel (Lori Singer) as she performs a reckless highway stunt. The equivalent in the new Footloose is “Suicide Eyes” by A Thousand Horses, a swaggering piece of New South rock that Kings of Leon could only dream of. The heaviest piece of rock on the original soundtrack is Quiet Riot’s “Bang Your Head,” off the first heavy metal album ever to reach number one on Billboard. With its refrain of “Metal Health will drive you mad,” the song represented parents’ biggest fear at the time: the cheerful embrace of the Devil-invented-rock attitude of heavy metal. The song had a getting-ready-in-the-morning-for-school snottiness that was just plain fun to listen to. Its inclusion in the new version reveals it for what it always was: a great pop rock anthem. (I realize that is blasphemous to any true hard rock and heavy metal believer, but there it is.) The QR track was used in the original as Ren arrives for his first day of school. In the new version he’s blasting Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow,” a thumping piece of team-spirit hip-hop. (Alas, neither “Bang Your Head” nor “Black and Yellow” are included on the new Footloose soundtrack.)
The absence of black music from the original Footloose is the biggest corrective in the new version. Along with the Wiz Khalifa track, Brewer also highlights Three 6 Mafia with the inclusion of “Get Your Feet Off the Ground.” There’s even a contribution by current pop deconstructionist Cee Lo Green, who channels Muddy Waters on the greasy piece of blues “Walkin’ Blues”. (The song is given something extra by Kenny Wayne Shepherd doing his best Robert Johnson/Ry Cooder impersonation.) But the new Footloose explicitly acknowledges the dethroning of hard rock by hip-hop with the crunk offering “Dance The Night Away,” David Banner’s re-imagining of “Dancing In The Sheets.” The song has a body-popping beat that trumps anything on the Shalamar original.
The one song that casts the greatest shadow over anything in the new film is The White Stripes’ “Catch Hell Blues.” Off their towering Icky Thump record, “Catch Hell Blues” is a grinding workout that is fittingly used as the song Ren does his “angry dance” routine to. When Jack White hollers “If you’re testing God lying to His face/You’re gonna catch hell,” it’s as if the Devil was admitting defeat. It easily tops the equivalent track from the original Footlose, Moving Pictures’ “Never.” A piece of synth-pop dance music, “Never” is a perfectly decent song that was dated about six months after its release. Its a classic case of visuals of Kevin Bacon’s dancing blotting out the ordinariness of a song. “Never” also makes a good case that a synthesizer and a saxophone should never appear on the same track.
The more fascinating song from the original soundtrack is Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero.” Written by Pitchford and Jim Steinman, it is a prime example of ’80s pop bombast (a Steinman specialty). Tyler, an American Idol winner before her time, performs every song at full throttle. Lyrically the song is a teenage girl’s yearning for the perfect man set to an aerobics workout beat. (“Where have all the good men gone/And where are all the gods?/Where’s the streetwise Hercules/To fight the rising odds?” With lyrics like that, you can understand why the song is a karaoke staple.) The song’s rototoms-and-piano instrumental break is just terrible. (In fact, edit it out the instrumental break and you have a terrific guilty pleasure.) The unintended comic highpoint is when the gospel-like backing chorus repeats the refrain “fire in my blood” until you all but have to raise both fists in the air. The song’s endearing popularity is owed completely to its use during the tractor chicken-race sequence. The music-video editing allows the viewer to look past the song’s obvious shortcomings. (It doesn’t hold a candle to Tyler’s powerful “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” another Steinman composition.) Like most of Steinman’s songs, it’s a song made for the movies. (He did more interesting work on the soundtrack to the 1984 future-shock rock & roll fable Streets of Fire.) The new stripped-down acoustic version by 15-year-old Ella Mae Brown is absolutely startling as it reveals the song’s angst-filled beauty. The purplish lyrics feel natural and right coming from the mouth of a teenager. It’s the best song Taylor Swift never recorded.
(The one flat-out dud on the new soundtrack is the paint-by-numbers cover of “Almost Paradise” by Victoria Justice and Hunter Hayes. There’s just no topping the senior-prom majesty of the Nancy Wilson and Mike Reno original.)
But the best songs on the soundtracks represent the best pop music has to offer. For the original it’s Deniece Williams’ R&B dance confection “Let’s Hear It For The Boy.” With its synth bass line, clap-along beat and Williams’ caressing vocals, the song is pop perfection that sounds as joyous today as it did in 1984. (Tellingly, it is the Williams version, not the fine Jana Kramer country-dance cover, that is used in the new film’s take on the crowd-pleasing dance sequence of Miles Teller’s good ol’ boy Willard learning to dance.) The best song on the new soundtrack is Big & Rich’s “Fake ID.” This makes sense, seeing how country music is now officially the new pop. I must make it clear that a pop song with a fiddle solo does not a country song make. The Big & Rich track is different, though. (There’s no fiddle solo, for starters.) It’s a giddy-up foot stomper that testifies to the lengths one must go to (including breaking the law) in order to have a good time. (“Hey mister won’t you sell me a fake ID/There’s a band in the bar that I’m dyin’ to see.”) There’s even an unnecessary but welcome late-in-the-song appearance by Gretchen Wilson. (Her appearance is equivalent to a hip-hop artist popping up on a remix to provide a brief rap solo. She gives the song an added flavor.) The legacy of both versions of Footloose (the movies and the soundtracks) is that their best moments make the case of giving yourself over to the pleasures of pop without the burden of guilt.
San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.