'Footloose' screenwriter says movie's book-burning scene was 'rewriting the status quo.' Nearly 4 decades later, he's 'still waiting for the climate to change.’

The iconic 1984 film, starring Kevin Bacon, highlights a conservative town that outlaws music, dancing and "sinful" books.

Footloose highlights a 1984 conservative town that outlaws music, dancing and
Footloose highlights a 1984 conservative town that outlaws music, dancing and "sinful" books. The parallels are strikingly similar to today's surge of book bans across schools and libraries, says its Oscar-winning screenwriter. (Photo Illustration: Yahoo News; Getty Images; Everett Collection)
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In the 1984 classic Footloose, city boy Ren McCormack (Kevin Bacon) moves to a small town where dancing and rock music have been banned. Determined to challenge the status quo, he ignites a fiery, youth-led movement encouraging the town to “cut loose” and reclaim their right to express themselves.

It was a plot that "seemed somewhat surreal" nearly 40 years ago, its composer and screenwriter, Dean Pitchford, tells Yahoo Entertainment. But now, it's strikingly similar to what many face today as conservative lawmakers, most notably in Florida and Texas, seek to ban books, plays and musicals they deem inappropriate for students (mainly works with themes around sex, race, identity and gender).

Buried deep in the film's iconic songs like “Holding Out for a Hero,” “Almost Paradise” and the Oscar-nominated tracks “Footloose” and “Let’s Hear It For the Boy,” is a universal message about championing our personal freedoms in the face of societal constraints, explains Pitchford.

PAYSON - FEBRUARY 17: The movie
Kevin Bacon cuts loose in Footloose, where he plays a city kid trying to bring a little music and fun to a small conservative town that's banned rock music and dancing. (CBS via Getty Images) (CBS Photo Archive via Getty Images)

Much of that angst was fueled by the rise of MTV, cable and the censorship wars in the early 1980s — when artists were pressured to place warning labels on records deemed to be offensive or when the “Moral Majority,” a Christian political action group founded by Rev. Jerry Falwell, campaigned to shield kids from perceived corrupting influences. Similar to today’s book ban movement, these campaigns were swift and fueled much of the political rhetoric, he notes.

That's why over 150 artists are elevating Banned Books Week, held Oct. 1 to 7, in response to the surge of challenged books across U.S. schools and libraries.

"It was all over American politics, much like it is today,” he says of the censorship wars and their role in politics. Pitchford took that to heart when writing the film's famous book-burning scene, which he calls a "distressing" reminder about the ramifications of censorship.

Writing Footloose’s book-burning scene

The memorable scene highlights the evolution of antagonist Rev. Shaw Moore (John Lithgow), who convinces his congregation to shun anything he deems as “sinful,” like music and books. As shown in the film, his vitriol leads the townspeople to conduct a book-burning ceremony, all in the name of morality.

It's in this moment that Rev. Shaw finally recognizes the power his words have had, while watching stacks of books turn to ash: "Satan is not in these books, it’s in your hearts," he tells the crowd.

When Pitchford started outlining the scene in 1979, not long after writing the Oscar-winning title track for Fame, it had a much different ending.

“I created the Minister to be much more of a one-dimensional firebrand,” he says. But as he developed the character, he realized the larger message of the film wouldn’t land if its antagonist never saw the consequences of his actions — and, ultimately, atone for his own sins.

“I wanted to fill all the human angles to him,” he explains. “He inadvertently had weaponized members of his congregation. And when he saw them [burning books] in that scene, the big turnaround was him having the realization: Oh, my God, my words have been turned to this. It begins the return to his humanity.”

The parallels, he adds, were just as clear then as it is now.

“I remember doing press for Footloose and people asking me whether I had written that scene in response to the rise of the Moral Majority," he says. “In the '80s, I saw book burnings and record burnings, where people would bring records [of so-called offensive music] into a parking lot and throw them on the ground, and then roll over them with a steam roller.”

Similar actions are taking shape today in the form of book bans and far-right groups like One Million Moms, which Pitchford argues have “made it their job to moralize everything and everybody around them.”

For them, he hopes Rev. Shaw’s evolution will be a cautionary tale. “I don't know when we'll hit the ‘enough is enough’ button, but I'm still waiting for the climate to change,” he says. "I want people to grow weary of the hate mongers who are saying, ‘Our children are being destroyed’ and ‘Our children are being groomed by this book about a penguin who loves another penguin.’ Oh, come on."

‘We were rewriting the status quo’

As Pitchford points out, he is one of the few filmmakers left to tell the tale. Many have since passed away, including director Herbert Ross and producers Dan Melnick, Lewis J. Rachmil and Craig Zadan, who went on to pioneer multicultural milestones like Brandy and Whitney Houston’s Cinderella and several live musicals for NBC.

As he remembers it, the scrappy team stopped several attempts made by film executives who tried to alter Pitchford’s rock pop soundtrack by filling the songs with '80s-style “disco sounds,” “wah wah pedals” and "synthesizers."

But the filmmakers knew that if they wanted the film’s message to have universal appeal, they needed the soundtrack to deliver a timeless sound that resonated across generations. Similar to Ren's journey in the film, Pitchford says they "locked arms" in efforts to keep their creative integrity intact.

“We got to make the movie we wanted to make,” he says. “The producers were all Jewish men who had very strong inner compasses. These guys took sledgehammers and broke down walls. These were people who were simply not content to abide by the status quo. We were rewriting the status quo.”

'Be kind'

Pitchford advises the numerous authors whose books have been banned to “be kind to themselves,” and to know that one day, hopefully, today’s iteration of the "Moral Majority" will have an evolution similar to that of Rev. Shaw.

“It's so distressing to see the very good work being twisted in such a way. And the people who are twisting it, they’re speaking to those with zero desire to do any further research [about the books]," he says of the books being challenged.

And while artistic censorship is nothing new, Pitchford says today's social media landscape makes the film's message all the more prescient: “Nowadays, those book burnings and record burnings go viral. That presents people with a lot of ideas and inspiration. And it gives a lot of permission for them to act," he says.

That's why it's important to celebrate even the smallest victories, in whatever shape they come, Pitchford stresses. "There are periods in our past where not everybody was as quickly informed and misinformed as we are now, but it is consoling to look back and think, We got through it," he says.

"I'm married to my husband and we're both alive. There are things to be said for the battles that we fought."