The Politics of Dancing
The problem with remakes isn't that they're often terrible, but that they're ubiquitous. It seems that every few months we're assaulted with a repackaged hit from the 1980s, and I can count on both hands the number of times I've heard groans in the theatre whenever the trailer for one of these things hits.
So, why is that a problem? The danger in flooding the market with this kind of uninspired trash is that when a genuinely interesting and exciting update comes along, there's a chance not as many people will give it a shot. Case in point: Craig Brewer's Footloose, a rousing film that's as much about the emotional rigors of parenting as it is about teen rebellion. It's full of sharply drawn characters, poignant but not heavy-handed social commentary, and dancing so otherworldly that it sometimes looks as though the performers are having an out-of-body experience.
Full disclosure: I've never seen the original Footloose in its entirety. Go ahead, revoke my Child of the 80s card. I've never seen Flashdance, either. Something about music-heavy dance flicks never grabbed my attention as a kid; sad to say it wasn't until the Glee era that I was even half-interested in the art form. I don't see this as a handicap when reviewing the remake, though, as Brewer's version is a solid enough film that the other one may not as well exist (no offense to Misters Ross, Bacon, or Loggins).
Speaking of Glee, it's easy to imagine Footloose 2011 as a studio exec's wet dream: a brand-recognition-fueled teen picture with built-in soundtrack sales that captures the zeitgeist of both the toe-tapping musical drama and choreography-driven reality TV crazes. It's a mouthful, but I'd bet dollars to donuts there's a memo in some Hollywood tool's Inbox containing that exact phrase.
Fortunately, there's not a cynical note in Footloose. And while it's not a perfect movie, its gigantic heart is in the right place. This may have to do with the fact that Brewer co-wrote the screenplay with Dean Pitchford, who penned the 1984 version, which allowed both originator and re-inventor to keep the spirit of the story intact while bringing it to life for a new generation.
Their story follows Ren MacCormack (Kenny Wormald), a brooding Boston teenager who transfers to Bomont, Georgia during his senior year of high school. His mom has just died of cancer, and he moves in with his Uncle Wes and Aunt Lulu (Ray McKinnon and Kim Dickens, respectively), as well as their brood of adorable young daughters. Ren quickly learns that Bomont is nothing like Boston, especially in the three years following a horrible drunk-driving accident that claimed the lives of five students. The city council, guided by Reverend Shaw Moore (Dennis Quaid), introduced twelve strict laws aimed at local minors that include the prohibition of unsupervised dancing and playing "lewd" music.
It's clear from the outset that Ren's a good kid who finds small-town strictures ridiculous. His refusal to back down to a kid who bumps into him in the school hallway leads to a touching bromance with Willard (Miles Teller), who in turn introduces him to football team captain, Woody (Ser'Darius Blain). Soon, Ren has a small group of friends who teach him that not all Southerners are the backwards Mayberry hicks he'd assumed they were. Likewise, his confident but easygoing nature lets Bomont's teens know that not all Northerners are elitist snobs (Ren quickly dispels jokes about his background as a world-traveling gymnast with tales of the hot, Russian women he met on the circuit).
Ren also meets Ariel Moore (Julianne Hough), the quintessential preacher's daughter: daddy's angelic church mouse attends underground raves and runs around with her older, racecar-driving boyfriend, Chuck (Patrick John Flueger), when she should be studying. You don't have to have seen the original film to know that Ren and Ariel will fall in love after several snarky go-rounds, or that Chuck will not be happy about it--or that the kindly, old Reverend will frown upon his daughter's infatuation with the pouty-lipped, troublemaking Yankee.
The surprises in Footloose don't come from the main plot points. The gems are in the details, in the surprising character beats that make this a somewhat complex drama instead of just a teenybopper cash-in. That Brewer is at the helm should be a dead giveaway. In films like Hustle & Flow and the criminally underrated Black Snake Moan, he explores the South's modern identity crisis--at once steadfastly proud of a questionable history and also struggling to adapt to an encroaching, technologically and ideologically different future. The teens in Bomont are Internet savvy; they love hip-hop as much as they love new country music; and they dress in American Eagle-chic (which, sadly, gives lie to the scene where Ren struts into school on his first day and turns heads with his choice of clothes). Many of their parents were children of the 70s, and are hip enough to know (for the most part) what their kids get up to, but are so bound by concern for their safety that they resort to passing laws and doling out stern warnings--in short, acting like they think adults are supposed to act.
The characters in Footloose are as close to fully realized people as I've seen in a movie aimed at younger viewers. The filmmakers know that many in the audience will roll their eyes and tune out at the first sign of a moral--especially a Christian one--so they couch the story's lessons in honest debate between people of faith and people who aren't so sure. The film's resolution comes not from conversion, but from mutual understanding as to the meaning behind both scripture and the law as it relates to the confusing, heartbreaking process of growing up (both for the parents and their children).
A great deal of the movie's success comes from its lead actor. Wormald brings sincerity to a character that could have easily been a one-dimensional afterthought. His Ren MacCormack is sensitive without being mushy, tough without being showy. Wormald is a Beantown James Dean, a rebel with a cause; it's easy to see how he could get a town full of strangers on his side to help right a wrong that was enacted with the best intentions. He's also a hell of a dancer. I got excited watching him flip and contort himself into near-gravity-defying moves. My only gripe is that the scene where Ren demolishes an abandoned warehouse by acting out his frustrations via dance stepped just over the line into ridiculous territory--I can just see that being parodied on next year's MTV Movie Awards.
The film's second great discovery is Teller as Ren's redneck sidekick. Brewer and Pitchford save their best comedic lines for him, and I credit this genius trio for making me laugh out loud five times in the theatre (for those of you who know me, that really is something). I can't recall the last time I saw this warm and natural a chemistry between two male leads; Teller and MacCormack play so well off of each other that I half wished Hough had been a non-factor--I'm not saying the filmmakers should have taken Footloose to another level entirely by making the film's hero gay, but I would've applauded their efforts had they chosen to do so.
That leaves us with Hough. There's a black hole at the center of Footloose and she's it. That's not to suggest she does a bad job; in fact, she's wonderful in a later scene where Ariel confronts her dad on his hypocrisy. But not for one second did I buy her as a teenager born and raised in small-town Georgia. She looks and speaks like she hopped off a plane from Los Angeles. Aside from Quaid, she's also the only actor in the movie who doesn't speak with a thick Southern accent (aside from Wormald, of course). There are a hundred factors that might explain such a phenomenon. But when dealing with movie shorthand, if you're not going to bother with these particulars, you'd better work a dialect coach into your lead actress's contract.
On a related note, I had a difficult time with the film's first fifteen minutes. The drunk-driving sequence that opens the picture plays almost exactly as it does in the trailer, with as much character development and sense of time and place as is allowed in a two-minute spot (none). Had Brewer shaved a couple minutes off his boot-scootin' opening credits montage and given us some history between Ariel and her brother--who was one of the five killed in the crash--it might have made her character more palatable; at least I would've been able to care about her before the movie's three-quarter mark.
Nitpicks aside, Footloose is a truly wonderful film. Everyone involved in the production should be very proud for having redefined what a remake can and should be: relevant and necessary. Like many of the songs in the movie, this is a re-interpretation of a classic--a cover, if you will--that retains what I imagine is the spirit that captured a generation's imagination, while building something new and special for the millions of people who will encounter this story for the first time. As a cynical film critic, rare moments like this put a much-needed spring in my step.