The Throwback Machine brings to you perhaps the ultimate dance battle of the 1980s! Let me introduce you to our competitors, from the Feb. 18, 1984, Journal Gazette, this Time Theater ad for “Footloose,” and in the other corner, from the Oct. 19, 1988, Journal Gazette entertainment page, this movie review by the great Carl Lebovitz for “Dirty Dancing.” Seriously, are there any two more heralded movies about dancing from the era? Allright, technically there was “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” but c’mon, unless you had an older sister who hogged the VCR every Friday and Saturday night, you never saw that one.
So in case you don’t know, "Dirty Dancing" is the story of a teenage girl of the 1960s who gets dragged with her parents to spend the summer at a corny Catskills resort where the staff teaches the greyhairs the foxtrot. Meanwhile she sneaks around and discovers that during their off-hours, the hot-to-trot dancing staff, led by charismatic dance instructor Johnny Castle (the late great Patrick Swayze), do the real dancing. Romantic drama ensues as she tries to follow her heart while not disappointing her father, a story angle that a female friend of mine swears is the immortal struggle of all young girls.
If my synopsis of the film is a little “off” keep in mind that of all of "Dirty Dancing’s" 100-minute runtime, I’ve really only sat all the way through the final scene, where the resort’s end-of-season last dance is stopped cold by Johnny and his apparent ability to declare "Dance Martial Law”, at which point “his” kind of music is played, and everyone dances their way, and by “their way” I mean, they dance almost-sorta-risqué enough for a PG-13 movie at the time.
I don’t know why I’ve always been so resistant to “Dirty Dancing;” it’s not like I don’t get the appeal, but it’s possible I’m just not in the right demographic. I always found the ramshackle set design sort of depressing, and the mix of ‘60s oldies and dated adult ‘80s pop always made me just a wee bit nauseous. Still, it’s far and away better than the Nicolas Sparks slop that passes as a “chick flick” these days. You know the type, right? Where a recently widowed young woman raising her child in a peaceful New England coastal town, trying to run her own business selling homemade jams, meets a mysterious man who drifts on into town, hauling hay to various barns in the area? Oh, and he’s a former rodeo champion disgraced by a cheating scandal he was framed for. And he’s dying of Crohn's Disease.
So yeah, “Footloose”, on the other hand, has always been a little bit more my style. It was one of the first movies my parents ever rented to watch with their friends. I recall they really thought the opening credits montage of all the dancing shoes was pretty hysterical. Odd to think that the night they rented it, they would have been younger than I am now. Best not to dwell on that too much, right?
"Footloose" is a rock and roll fable of sorts about a too-smart-for-his-own-good sensitive kid named “Ren McCormack” who’s moved from Chicago to the rural town of “Bomont” by his mom and stepdad, a town that seems to exist everywhere and nowhere. Wherever this place is that has flatlands of sprawling corn and grain elevators but yet still has mountains in the background, dancing and “rock” music have both been outlawed thanks to a town ordinance spearheaded by council member and pastor John Lithgow, who must have just looked at the script, threw his hands up and said, “Why don’t I do the unexpected and turn in a great performance in this silly teen dance movie?” The best example of this would be the classic moment he halts a book burning by snatching a book from the flames and sadly admonishing his flock to, “Go home … and sit in judgment on yourselves," a line which comes to my mind quite a bit these days, especially when reading our letters column.
So Ren fights the system by trying to organize a high school prom, playing chicken with a bulldozer, working out his frustrations by doing solitary gymnastics in a barn, and defending the work of Kurt Vonnegut, all while also trying to woo the local bad girl, who it turns out, just happens to be the pastor’s daughter. Turns out all her rebelling ends up showing that her dad isn’t some cartoon villain, but a father who made an unreasonable call based on totally understandable reasons, leading to a great scene where she has to “confess” to her father that she’s not quite the person her dad thinks she is no matter how hard they’ve both tried.
That’s not quite dissimilar to a moment in "Dirty Dancing" where Jennifer Grey has to do the exact same thing with her father, played by the late great Jerry Orbach, who can only sit there, stone faced, one single tear running down his cheek, while he gets his heart broken. How can I think of a “guy’s” way of saying it’ll make you cry? Well, let’s just say it’ll kick you in the emotional groin. Boom. Guy-status maintained.
Which movie’s better? Well I guess that depends on just how much of either cornball you can eat before you start to get sick. Both have their similarities for sure, as both movies feature final dance numbers where the entire cast forms a pointed vanguard with the leads advancing directly toward the camera.
And surprisingly, both dance movies end up being carried by the ladies, just trying to find their place when the world wants them to be one thing and their parents just don’t seem to get it. Meanwhile us guys seem content to wait in the car, idling at the curb and playing with the radio, so we can get to the dance on time. Regardless which one you’d rather watch, this Saturday afternoon, flip around your TV listings. They’ll be waiting.