Movie buffs freaked when word leaked that Paramount Pictures was remaking its 1984 youth classic ‘Footloose,’ as if the studio was tampering with a sacred text. Or remaking ‘The Ten Commandments,’ God forbid. (Oh, wait. ‘The Ten Commandments’ with Charlton Heston was itself a remake – done over by the same director, Cecil B. DeMille).
Sure, the first ‘Footloose’ was fun, but it really was magic for two reasons: a terrific soundtrack built around Kenny Loggins’ title song that sounds every bit as slamming today as it did 27 years ago, and the star-making turn by Kevin Bacon, one of the most enduring actors of the modern era. But aside from that (and OK, Chris Penn’s performance – particularly while learning how to dance – was endearing as well), the movie was MTV-style cheese.
So why make a new one? Frankly, why not? With its tale of a teenage outsider rallying his peers to stand up for their fundamental right to the joyous free expression of dance, the core story has an undeniable appeal that should hold up for generations. Unfortunately, the young audiences that should still embrace the original don’t seem to keep anything from the ’80s alive outside of John Hughes’ movies.
The new ‘Footloose’ takes a more realistic and gritty tone between its dynamic dance numbers. Directed by Craig Brewer, who displayed a unique vision with his debut ‘Hustle and Flow’ before slipping with the odd ‘Black Snake Moan,’ the new ‘Footloose’ gets off to a riveting start with a wild party that made me wonder just how much the filmmakers could get away with in a teen flick.
That is, until a carload of drunken teens crashes in a stark and strongly shot sequence. As a result, the town council of fictional Bomont – where the kids were from – take dramatic action. The council decides to ban all forms of teen dancing and impose a strict curfew, in response to a demand from the town’s pastor, Rev. Shaw Moore (Dennis Quaid).
But when a new guy in town, Ren McCormick (new discovery Kenny Wormald capably filling Bacon’s large dancing shoes) leads a teen rebellion alongside the preacher’s surviving daughter, Ariel (Julianne Hough), the stage is set for a battle between interpreting the Bible’s directives on dancing from a punitive vs. joy-filled perspective. And yes, along the way, Ren also gets to teach a good-natured redneck named Willard (Miles Teller in Penn’s famous role).
Right off the bat it’s clear Brewer is crafting a better movie than the original. The opening party scene burns with a debauched intensity, the car crash hits home and the reverend is a somewhat sympathetic soul whose son was among the young lives wasted in the crash. Brewer’s take on Quaid’s reverend is contrasts with the fire and-brimstone monster that John Lithgow laughably played in the original.
In fact, it’s that portrayal by Quaid, with Andie McDowell expertly replacing Dianne Wiest’s uptight portrayal of the preacher’s wife in the original, that is a perfect example of why the new ‘Footloose’ is not only a good flick in its own right, but downright refreshing in many ways. One might expect Christianity would be portrayed even more stupidly with the advancement of time and loosened onscreen morality, but this movie continues this year’s exciting trend in showing Christians as real people, not morons. Give Quaid a medal for doing double good for the cause between ‘Footloose’ and his turn as the faith-filled father in ‘Soul Surfer’ last spring.
While the dancing in a couple of scenes is definitely raunchier than before, it’s clearly drawn as coming from a yearning to break free against oppressive rules. When (SPOILER ALERT, but are you really surprised?) the kids are allowed to dance again with approval from the pastor, the slutty moves of Hough and company shift 180 degrees toward a positive and fun depiction of dance as a celebration of the human spirit.
There are also great anti-drug and anti-promiscuity messages dropped in, and in keeping with the film’s more realistic tone, the acting across the board is solid. Time will tell if Wormald develops a strong screen career, but he’s great in the lead even if he ultimately doesn’t catch the same lightning in a bottle than Bacon did. Plus, Teller as Willard is funny and charming enough to have a real future. Hough, meanwhile, is a true discovery – even though anyone can figure that a two-time ‘Dancing with the Stars’ champ knows how to tear up a dance floor, she is a surprisingly terrific actress as well, whether playing up her sex appearl or flashing impressive dramatic chops.
I’m just as disgusted as anyone else that some schmuck is trying to remake ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ and I’m mortified at most of the other reboots currently being discussed. But this is one case where a simple, well told American story is a welcome sight – even if it’s being told a second time.