Once upon a time, there was an outsider who came to a small town of limited imagination. He looked upon the town’s ignorant forces of authority and challenged them, fighting for the oppressed and changing the social order. It’s a story that’s been told countless times in various forms of media, to the point where we take these archetypes pretty seriously. “Footloose” is the latest picture to utilize this familiar framework, and a novice might smirk at the main concept’s compelling hook: a town that has outlawed dance.
But director Craig Brewer puts his own spin on the material, a remake based on the 1984 youth classic. A rambunctious opening sequence set to the title song features youths hoofing and smiling their way through an evening of youthful exuberance and the promise of tomorrow. Just as the song comes to a close, there is a horrifying car accident that sends a four-door smashing into a crippling wreck, ending the lives of five young partygoers. What is to blame for the free-wheeling ways of these children, who had been drinking copiously? Not so much dance, of course, but public gatherings of youth. The event sends the parents and town leaders into a frenzy and before long a number of restrictions are in place including a curfew and yes, a ban on public dancing.
Into this mess walks Bostonian Renn, a skinny-jeans wearing charmer with bouffant hair and a cocksure smile. Played by newcomer Kenny Wormwald, he struts into town not so much like Kevin Bacon, but with the confidence of a young Tom Cruise. Immediately he earns the wrath of the local law enforcement, likely because when this kid blasts Quiet Riot out of his iPod speakers, he’s not doing so ironically. It’s not so much romance as the Law of Gravity that attracts Renn to the preacher’s daughter, Ariel (Julianne Hough). While she’s dating the local racetrack meathead Chuck (Patrick John Flueger), she’s only resigned herself to being his toy in lieu of something better. In Renn, she finds someone almost as good as her at grinding hips together. When the two dance, her boyfriend’s stare burns a hole through the screen. You’ll reach for a cigarette.
Brewer understands the real-life issues surrounding many small town youths, they of reckless energy and aggression, with limited options mostly due to parents ruled by fear. The local pastor (Dennis Quaid) clutches his Bible as he talks about the lack of human communication brought forth by the advent of technology. And, to an extent, he’s right, and his fear seems justified. It was his son who perished in the car chase that defined the small town. But what he doesn’t understand is that, like Wormwald and Hough, ignoring the presence of the internet, cell phones and, in this very specific case, aggressive pop music, you can turn the volume down, but you can’t turn the radio off.
Because of this structure, “Footloose” assuredly presents its story, running a confident 112 minutes. But while other directors or studios would have allotted that time to a dance showcase, where the townsfolk would have revealed themselves as hoofing superstars, Brewer takes great pains to establish this as a community of loving, God-fearing folks who obey the laws not because they are slaves to routine, but because they have genuine lives to worry about. Every set in “Footloose” feels authentic and lived-in, making the most of locations utilized in Georgia. Contrast this to the Hollywood-set feeling of the recent sun-soaked “Straw Dogs” remake, and you can see the difference between filmmakers who care about their surroundings, and those who treat them as an afterthought.
Produced by MTV Films, “Footloose” manages to stumble in its Screenwriting 101-heavy final act. Manufactured side conflicts arise between Ariel and her now ex-boyfriend Chuck, who seems to bob and weave out of the narrative when necessary. And overplayed speechifying plagues Renn’s address to the town council regarding public displays of rhythm. Though Wormwald’s slight smirk when quoting the Bible to strengthen his case adds a youthful playfulness to a climax that happens quietly, between young babes in suits and old men on a pedestal.
But for the rest of its runtime, “Footloose” captures exactly what MTV used to represent, before the laws of capitalism swallowed the network whole. It’s alive and vital, day scenes shot through sun-kissed farmland, nighttime sequences powered by the infinite possibilities of youth. With characters like Renn’s kindly cousin (a funny Ray McKinnon), Brewer is paying tribute to a community, made up not of central casting types, but of salt-of-the-earth townsfolk. And when the music starts, Brewer’s camera writes a love song to Ms. Hough’s hips. And for those fleeting moments, it’s what the movies are all about. [B]