Dance in film is nothing new: as with action films, we all get a little thrill at seeing attractive people doing things that we could never do ourselves, whether it’s double-tapping a hard target from 70 meters away (a confession: I don’t know if that actually means anything) or pulling a salchow triple lutz from a seated position in an underground dance club. Still, the 21st-century renaissance in dance-focused films has been pretty impressive, at least in scope. The surprising success of Save The Last Dance ushered in a decade of three-word movie titles that would make even Steven Seagal blush: consider You Got Served or How She Move or Stomp The Yard or Make It Happen or Feel The Noise or Take The Lead. They’re cheap to make and you don’t need big stars: you just need a flashy trailer, some money to spend on licensing a few well-known songs for it, and you’re set. It’s no wonder studios love making them.
I was going to criticize these films for appearing to be largely interchangeable, as many of them feature plots straight from the “I just want to dance but family/social circumstances prevent me from doing so, but I’ll overcome them and everyone will be happy at the end” school, but then, that’s been the overarching theme since way back in the 80’s heyday of Flashdance and Footloose. On the face of it, the plot of Footloose seems even more far-fetched now than it was in 1984: a small town that manages to pass an ordinance that bans dancing and loud music? Maybe that was still feasible in George Orwell’s titular year, but in 2011 it’s hard not to imagine the ACLU descending on Bomont, Georgia and spinning everyone around with legalisms until they’re ready to sue themselves for daring to ever restrict a valid form of artistic self-expression.
Sure, it’s contrived, but it’s simple, and that simplicity works to the advantage of Craig Brewer’s Footloose remake. There are a few nods to the fact that almost 30 years have passed since the original film came out - Ren here laughs over a pile of vinyls before hotwiring an iPod hookup into his fixer-upper car - but Brewer’s Bomont doesn’t seem all that far removed from the 1980’s version. Small-town people have small-town fun, everyone seems to know everyone else, and no one seems to be aware that things like cell phones or the Internet exists. It’s a place that seems out of time, in more ways than one: after a deadly car crash caused by a teen who drank heavily at a dance three years previous to the events of the film, the town council decides to ban dancing rather than, say, try to make it harder for teens to drink, or step up their parenting abilities. (Teen drinking was already theoretically illegal when the accident occurred, yet it still happened - why do they think they can ban dancing and be able to enforce that any better?) It’s all silly and anachronistic, of course, but Brewer doesn’t waste a lot of time trying to convince you to take it seriously: the ride starts and you’re either off or on. He does, however, make investing in the plot an easy task with confident direction and a sterling eye for photographing the many dance numbers.
At 113 minutes, Footloose is longer than it probably needs to be to tell its story, but it’s got an affable energy to the proceedings that makes it a pleasure to watch. That starts with Kenny Wormald as Ren, a Boston transplant to Bomont, who brings with him potentially dangerous knowledge of all the rawest beats and most experimental dance moves of the Northeast. Wormald’s an unknown, previously best known as a backup dancer for Justin Timberlake, but he’s got an easygoing and sincere charisma to him that works well for this specific role, and he can certainly dance, even if he does look every bit the 27-year-old high school senior. His version of Ren is a character reluctantly forced to take a stand for self-expression against the mild-mannered forces of fascism in a small town, and even if the stakes are small, Brewer tells the story well enough that you can’t help but at least feel invested in Ren’s fight.
Along the way, rivalries are formed with lunk-headed hicks (a confusing destruction derby sequence that could’ve easily been skipped is inserted as part of this subplot, although there is a nice nod to the original’s tractor fight thrown in), the bonds of friendship grow between Ren and his high school classmates, and the troubled daughter of the local preacher starts to take more than a shine to him. Out-of-touch adults exclaim things like “I don’t care what the rap music people say!” Clumsy teenagers learn to dance through the magic of a musical montage, impassioned speeches are given before the city council, rednecks are hit over the head with beer bottles, warehouses are danced in. It's kinda ridiculous, but in a genuinely fun way.
This is one of those remakes that doesn’t seem all that interested in changing much about the original film, nor even all that interested in updating it, necessarily. There is some hip-hop music thrown in there for the tweens, but not much. The unabashed retelling of a story we’ve seen before seems purposeful, though: this isn’t really a film intended to be seen by anyone who loves the original film; this is a product entirely designed for moviegoers who weren’t even alive in 1984, let alone 1994.
Which is one reason why it’s a little surprising that everything works so well, even for those of us who have seen and enjoyed the first Footloose. Brewer, best known as the director of Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan, proves more than capable of bringing his talents to bear on the problems that must accompany filming dance. It has to be difficult to keep energy up when you’re filming the same dance sequence for four days straight, but the four or five setpieces here have a legitimate air of exuberance and smile-inducing joy to them. They’re well-framed and it’s easy to follow along with the action, and the decision not to shoot in 3D seems to have allowed for a bit more fluidity in camera movement that Brewer exploits to good effect. Four of the more prominent songs from the original film have been respectfully re-recorded by new voices here, sometimes to humorous effect: the epic-level cuteness of five-year-old girls singing "Let's Hear It For The Boy" via Barbie karaoke is unlikely to be matched anytime soon.
It’s the stitching that connects all of the dance sequences together that will make or break your engagement with Footloose. There’s a fair amount of talking and back-and-forth and will they/won’t they kiss between Ren and Ariel, played by Julianne Hough, who seems to be featured more for a (quite frankly ridiculous) body more than any kind of emotive ability. She’s fine, but she seems to lack a certain spark that exists, however mildly, in Wormald. (Brewer deserves a lot of credit for crafting one of the best first-kiss shots in recent memory, though.) Miles Teller is affectingly clueless as Ren’s best friend, who can’t dance but who will of course learn incredible moves before the film’s climax, while Dennis Quaid just manages to avoid chewing the scenery that so many actors playing preachers seem to feel entitled to. Andie MacDowell’s screen time is kept mercifully brief. The talkin' bits are probably a bit over-extended from where they needed to be: this would've been a better movie had it been 15 minutes shorter.
Still, as with last year’s Burlesque, I was legitimately surprised by how much I enjoyed the experience of watching Footloose. I regard dancing with the same kind of trepidation as sticking my hand down a garbage disposal that’s been turned off: I know that nothing should happen, but there’s an outside chance that I’ll wind up doing something so embarrassing that I’ll have to sever all ties with anyone who saw me. This is a kinda-great piece of vicarious entertainment in that sense: even if my aching bones and advancing age prevents me from “cutting a rug,” as I’m led to believe the youth call it nowadays, this is still a film that manages to convey the joy of dancing in a straightforward, simple manner. Calling it simple might sound like I’m damning it with faint praise, but sometimes simplicity is a virtue, and it certainly is in Footloose’s case.
Trailer 2: Footloose
Dancing, kissing, and explosions. Just another Friday in Texas.
The repeated "everybody cut" part of Kenny Loggins' song sounds like an encouragement of mass self-harm, now that I think of it. But then, so is this trailer.
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