REVIEW: Not Just Your Average Remake, Footloose Has All the Right Moves
God save Craig Brewer's Footloose, which is less a movie for today's audiences than for yesterday's -- and I mean that in the good way. This is a pop entertainment made with an eye for detail: When our teen hero and the young woman he's been wooing move in for their first kiss, the setting sun peeps out from behind their conjoined silhouettes. Corny, right? Get this: The rays beam out through a star filter. You can roll your eyes at the obviousness of it all, or you can marvel that a filmmaker cared to make a choice so traditional, so clichéd, that it becomes a kind of pop-culture mission statement. It's as if Brewer is taking a stand for movies that look like movies instead of audience hipness barometers.
Brewer made a splash in 2005 with the well-received Hustle & Flow, and in 2006 squandered all the goodwill he'd earned from audiences and critics with Black Snake Moan, an even better and far more daring movie with Southern biblical righteousness deep in its soul. (Lots of viewers seemed to have trouble with the idea of Christina Ricci's being chained to a radiator by Samuel L. Jackson, but in the context of the story and its setting, the image was hardly gratuitous.) Brewer, who spent most of his childhood in Memphis, is one of the few contemporary filmmakers I know of who can make movies about the South without sentimentalizing it, glorifying it or looking down on it.
Which may be part of the reason this new Footloose is set in Georgia, while Herbert Ross' 1984 original -- the movie that made a star out of Kevin Bacon and became a pop-culture phenomenon in its own right -- was set in Oklahoma. Shoving aside all the "Who needs to remake Footloose?" arguments that have swirled around in the past year -- whoever needs to remake anything? -- this new Footloose, while respectful of the original, is bold about staking its claim as an old-fashioned entertainment for the age of the iPod. Kenny Wormald, a dancer who grew up in Boston (he was born the year the original was released), stars as Ren McCormack, a high schooler who finds himself transplanted to the home of his Uncle Wes (a deadpan-jovial Ray McKinnon) after his mother's death. The town is called Bomont, and three years before Ren's arrival, a group of teenagers were killed in a car accident after a night of dancing and, as the high-stepping opening montage clearly spells out, drinking. In his grief, Reverend Shaw Moore (Dennis Quaid), the father of one of the boys, persuaded the city council to ban underage dancing in the town. And as it turns out, the reverend's saucy daughter Ariel (Dancing with the Stars' Julianne Hough) is the first local girl Ren notices upon his arrival.
Ren is the quintessential good kid: He takes an extremely unglamorous job at a local cotton mill (its barnlike environs will come in handy later) and rebuffs a redneck stoner who tries, as a way of framing him, to hand him a joint. Still, Ren gets in trouble with the local authority figures, including Reverend Moore, who vehemently disapproves of Ren even though he barely knows the kid.
And really, all Ren wants to do is dance. He unleashes his pent-up anger at the local grown-ups -- in a version of Bacon's original signature pissed-off dance -- in an old barn, where he tumbles, scissor-kicks and swings from the rafters. (He's a gymnastics kid, too.) Wormald makes an admirably low-key heartthrob, like a sexier version of the young John Cryer. And with his ruffian pompadour, he would have looked at home in 1984 or 1964: Leaping and kicking around that barn in his jeans and white Converse, he could be a Jet straight out of West Side Story.
That's the vibe Brewer taps so cheerfully here, and his performers are unapologetic about channeling the "Hey kids, let's put on a show!" moxie that he asks of them. Hough isn't as appealing as Wormald is -- she has a shrewdly appraising demeanor, and she doesn't soften up enough as the movie goes on. But her spitfire brassiness works well enough, particularly by the time her character gives Ren the bible -- complete with applicable underlined verses -- he'll need to persuade the town elders to overturn their no-dance policy.
As he guides us toward that teen barn-burner of a speech, Brewer does a hundred little things right: The local adult who secretly allows the kids to hold dance parties is the owner of the local drive-in where they hang out, and he's a black guy (he's played by Brewer regular Claude Phillips) -- someone's got to stand in opposition to the town's clueless, squaresville white people. The movie's second bananas -- Rusty, played by a young dazzler named Ziah Colon, and Willard, Miles Teller (of Rabbit Hole) -- are perfectly cast, and they're part of a mix of friends Ren makes in his new town. (Like lots of young people in America, but not in the movies, Ren hangs out with pals of all races -- Ser'Darius Blain plays his buddy Woody -- without having a neon "Interracial Friendship" sign hanging overhead.) And just after the movie's most misguided character, Quaid's weatherbeaten reverend, confesses the error of his ways in front of his congregation, he announces the hymn: It's "Just As I Am," a song that speaks of humility and human frailty, not jubilance. It's a little moment of grace tucked amid the movie's unabashed pop-culture pleasures.
And then there's the dancing: There's probably more ho-hum bumping and grinding than there was in the original Footloose, but much of the dancing is still great fun to watch -- the sequences are exuberant and, thankfully, not cut to ribbons. There's country line dancing (which Ren refers to, with wise-ass affection, as "the white man's wet dream"), groups of black kids kicking it up on the asphalt, and, finally, the moment when all the young people of Bomont come together at their hard-earned prom. Whirling and shuffling on the dance floor, they've reclaimed a basic pleasure and a right. Dancing is just fun. You don't need a remake of Footloose to remind you of that -- though if you're anything like me, you probably can't remember the last time you did it yourself.