By Aaron Aradillas
Press Play Contributor
Craig Brewer’s Footloose comes on the screen with the confidence of a perfectly executed playlist. Right at the start, the Paramount logo comes on the screen and a DJ’s voice does a mic-check and tells everyone to get on the floor. The opening beat of the Kenny Loggins title track takes the party to a new level. It’s a post-victory dance; the title sequence is both a tribute to and updating of the classic dancing-feet title sequence from the original Footloose. The whole movie is like that: an affectionate tribute and canny updating of the rebel yell youth fantasy of wanting to break free from the protective if sometimes overbearing rules of authority.
In contrast to most remakes of so-called pop classics where the filmmakers seem to be just cashing in on a well-known property (you can almost feel the director’s contempt for the material), Brewer is an unabashed fan of the original. While guys like David Lynch, Todd Solondz, and Paul Thomas Anderson seem to have turned their backs on the beauty of pop in order to make big statements, Brewer stands alone, I think, as the most vital pop mythmaker working today. He doesn’t traffic in mash-up deconstructions like Glee or have much patience for the arms-stretched-out-to-the-heavens projecting of American Idol and The X-Factor. He’s all about rock, country, and especially hip-hop. His hip-hop fable Hustle and Flow was easily the best directorial debut of the 2000s, with one of the all-time great star performances by Terrence Howard. His follow-up, the Southern Gothic sex comedy Black Snake Moan, contained Samuel L. Jackson’s finest piece of acting since Pulp Fiction. And now comes his take on the ultimate white-boys’s-gotta-dance fantasy. Brewer knows the story of Footloose — small-town kids standing up to adults for their right to have a good time — is a joke, but so what? It’s not any sillier than the Mickey & Judy musicals or Breakin’ 2. Brewer’s take grounds the story in as much reality as possible by giving it an authentic sense of place, and infusing every scene with the desire to break free from the natural rhythm of everyday life. This new Footloose is like a cross between a blast from a boom box and the interior soundscape created by putting in earbuds. The movie is not a toe tapper. It’s a foot-stomper.
Seen from today’s perspective, the original Footloose is a strange film. Released in spring of 1984, it was part of the initial wave of movies made in the wake of the advent of MTV. Launched in August of 1981, the cable channel’s constant loop of music videos, a live-action jukebox if you will, was instantly seen by Hollywood as a new way of tapping into the ever-growing teen market. Filmmakers were inspired by the channel’s innovative editing style as a shorthand for storytelling. Adrian Lyne’s soft-core follow-your-dreams Flashdance from spring, 1983 is often considered the first MTV movie, but this isn’t entirely accurate. The first film to display an obvious influence from MTV is Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky III, a Dolby-pounding crowd-pleaser that brilliantly uses musical montages to move its story along. (The opening “Eye of the Tiger” montage remains one of the greatest edited sequences of 1980s.) Other MTV-influenced movies include Pink Floyd: The Wall, Beat Street, Krush Groove, Reckless, Flashdance, and Staying Alive.
Footloose was different. More so than Flashdance, it was a case where the soundtrack sold the movie and vice-versa. You could remove almost any 4-minute chunk of the film and play it on MTV as a stand-alone video. (In fact, the video for the title song was a re-working of Kevin Bacon’s “angry dance” sequence, which was originally set to Moving Pictures’ “Never.”) The story of big-city kid Ren MacCormack (Kevin Bacon) moving to small-town Oklahoma and running up against the towns’ fathers in his pursuit to cut loose was merely a clothesline for the film’s music and dance sequences. The teen audiences that made the movie a hit knew this, but they also knew it stood for something more. Director Herbert Ross (The Turning Point) knew that if the actors believed in the material it would carry the audience past any lapses in logic. Young viewers identified with the situations and iconography of high school life even if what they were seeing was far from an accurate depiction of American youth circa 1984. (There is nary a person of color to be seen in the original Footloose. Also, the music selections strangely made no acknowledement of funk, dance, or the then-emerging rap style. The soundtrack was purely whitebread rock.)
The one thing the original Footloose got right was the rise of Evangelical leaders wanting to legislate pleasure. John Lithgow’s Rev. Shaw Moore was a fire and brimstone preacher who rails against the obscenity of rock & roll music. When he says, “I don’t want to be missing from your lives,” he could be channeling the word of God. As it turned out rock & roll was not what preachers like the Lithgow character should’ve been worried about. It was hip-hop. (As the film plays out, it’s kind of funny to think that parents thought the music of Kenny Loggins and Sammy Hagar would corrupt their children.) The lack of an acknowledgement of black music (or sexuality) is the biggest oversight of the original Footloose. And it is the biggest corrective in the new version, complete with a racially diverse cast and a parking-lot dance sequence set to David Banner’s crunk take on Shalamar’s “Dancing in the Sheets” entitled “Dance the Night Away. (Side note: The release of the Albert Magnoli-directed Prince vehicle Purple Rain in July 1984 would rightly come to be known as the definitive MTV movie. A one-of-a-kind mix of music, drama, comedy, and attitude, Purple Rain foretold the coming domination of black music and sexuality in pop culture. Interestingly, it wasn’t Evangelicals who railed against the film. It was Tipper Gore who led the charge of obscenity against Prince’s music. Hmmm…)
Knowing that MTV has long since abandoned its commitment to music, (and that today’s audiences are more demanding when it comes to matters of motivation), Brewer fleshes out his script with subtle changes to characters and events. The result is a movie that has a purpose and a dramatic payoff as well as a musical one. After the rousing opening-title sequence, we are confronted with tragedy as a group of high school kids pile into a car and are killed in a car crash. This shocking event haunts the rest of the film as it echoes countless real life instances of innocent young lives cut short. The driver of the car turns out to have been the son of the town’s spiritual leader, Rev. Shaw Moore (Dennis Quaid). He leads the town council in a grief-stricken movement to pass curfews and town-wide ordinances against “disturbing the peace.” With Sarah Palin appropriating Heart’s “Barracuda” and George W. Bush liking his oldies, it would make little sense if Quaid’s Moore were to rail against certain types of pop. While the original Footloose gave the strange impression that no one in the town ever listened to any pop music, this new version makes it very clear both the adults and kids are music listeners. (In fact, the ban on dancing and music has caused the kids to seek out music in a kind of underground network of CDs and iPod playlists.) Brewer re-frames the story of Footloose as a moving portrait of parents wanting to protect their children from a “danger” that is a rite of passage of adolescence. To survive your teen years is a miracle. If you do it, you can handle anything. Every scene in Footloose is propelled by this truth.
As Ren, newcomer Kenny Wormald gives an intensely likable performance. He never plays to the audience’s knowledge that he is stepping into Kevin Bacon’s well-worn sneakers. He comes on screen fully possessing the character, and wins you over with his intelligence. Brewer re-imagines the character as a kid from Boston who has recently been orphaned after his mother died from leukemia. His move to live with his Uncle Wes (Ray McKinnon) and his wife Lulu (Kim Dickens) in small-town Georgia is made out of necessity, not convenience. Brewer obviously knows a thing or two about parental loss. Having lost his father (who was his biggest supporter) before the making of Hustle & Flow, he captures the anger that comes immediately following the loss of a loved one. This is dramatized in a scene late in the movie where Ren confronts Rev. Moore alone in a church. The scene has a quiet power as the two exchange knowledge of how they cope with unexpected reminders of loved ones they’ve lost. Strangely, this scene, which is the dramatic payoff to the story, has no equivalent in the original film.
The rest of the cast is uniformly fine. Re-teaming Quiad with his Dinner with Friends co-star Andie MacDowell as his supportive yet independent wife Vi was a smart move. It taps the familiarity between them and allows MacDowell to fill in her slightly underwritten role. Quaid is very good as he swaps Lithgow’s bellowing anger for almost paralyzing grief. McKinnon and Dickens prove once again they are two of the best utility players working in movies and television. Dickens in particular is very strong in her big scene with Wormald. As Ariel, the wild child preacher’s daughter, Julianne Hough captures a sense of restlessness in some small-town girls beautifully. Ser’Darius Blain looks ready to be a star as he turns the throwaway character of Woody into something charmingly special. As Ariel’s best friend Rusty (a role originally played by Sarah Jessica Parker), Ziah Colon turns the task of being the sidekick into something original by never acting as if she’s just there to provide support; she has great chemistry with Miles Teller, who steals the movie as good ol’ boy Willard. Teller, who was so good in Rabbit Hole (he played his scenes as if he was a member of the walking dead), shows the makings of a major actor as he delivers a totally winning comic performance. Just as in the original, the sequence where Willard learns to dance (scored to Jana Kramer’s country-dance cover of the Deniece Williams classic “Let’s Hear It For the Boy”) is the film’s highlight.
And what about the dancing? Is it as good as in the original? Actually, it’s categorically better. The musical numbers in the original were fun but far from well executed. The quick cuts and elaborate nature of the numbers allowed viewers to overlook the use of doubles and dark lighting set-ups leped to obscure the actors’ faces. (There’s a reason why the “Let’s Hear It For the Boy” sequence was the best dance number in the original. The late Chris Penn’s amateur status as a dancer was built into the sequence.) Here, using trained dancers Brewer lights everything brightly so we can fully see the actors doing their thing. When he cuts between wide shots and medium shots, it’s not to sell the idea that an actor is executing a difficult dance move; it’s to keep the movie moving to its own beat. Wormald, a former backup dancer for Justin Timberlake, turns the famous ‘angry dance” number into a real workout. Set to The White Stripes’ “Catch Hell Blues,” the number is still a gymnastics workout, but this time there’s a sense of gravity that makes it all the more impressive. Another terrific dance number is the one where Ren takes his friends to a rowdy honky-tonk for some ferocious line dancing. The sequence is scored to Big & Rich’s unbelievably catchy “Fake I.D.,” a song that testifies to the lengths one must go (including breaking the law) in order to have a good time. And the climatic dance number, set to Blake Shelton’s energetic if slightly uninspired cover of the title song, has a widescreen purity that recalls classic Hollywood musical framing. Footloose is not profound, but then again it’s not trying to be. At its best it’s a tribute to the desire to cut loose from the everyday restrictions of life. You leave the movie humming, and with a bounce in your step. Like the best pop, it gives you a buzz.
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.