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Footloose

Director: Craig Brewer
Cast: Kenny Wormald, Julianne Hough, Andie MacDowell, Dennis Quaid, Miles Teller, Ziah Colon

(Paramount Pictures; US DVD: 6 Mar 2012)

The world didn’t need a remake of Footloose, the 1984 movie where outsider-rebel Ren McCormack (Kevin Bacon) takes on a town-wide ban against public dancing.  Even remake director Craig Brewer thought so at first, revealing in his meaty solo commentary that his first reaction upon hearing the project was, “You can’t remake Footloose! It’s Footloose!”


But this Footloose remake is pretty well done, with clever nods to the original alongside subtle improvements. Brewer is a natural fit for the material, being a self-admitted Footloose fan, a teenager of the ‘80s, a music-lover, a connoisseur of the South, and a parent, and all of which he draws upon to make the movie smarter than it needs to be.


For fans of the original, the wit becomes first becomes apparent through its references. The VW bug Kevin Bacon’s Ren McCormak drives in the 1984 version turns up in Brewer’s film, only the new Ren (Kenny Wormald) receives the car as a broken-down beater he has to fix up—a literal remake. In another scene, Brewer replaces Bonnie Tyler’s thoroughly ‘80s-sounding “Holding Out for a Hero” with a twangy, countrified version by Ella Mae Bowen, which works better in context.


But the new Footloose, thankfully, isn’t just a faithful retelling of scenes and backward-looking nods. Brewer grounds the movie in a way that would make sense even if there were no 1984 original. It starts with the central conflict. The catalyst for the dancing ban—a tragic car accident that’s only hinted at in the original movie—is heavily emphasized in the opening scenes of the remake. It calls to mind other instances where personal freedoms are sacrificed in the name of public safety, which makes it feel more contemporary.


The dancing is more modern as well, with hard, hip-hop numbers working their way in with the foot-stomping country line dances and sillier ‘80s routines. Footloose thankfully avoids the most heinous of dance-movie pitfalls: casting actors who can only do half the job, either actors who can’t dance or dancers who can’t act. As town wild-child and Reverend’s daughter Ariel Moore, Jullianne Hough, best known for her stint on Dancing with Stars, shows off her own movie-star qualities, and though she’s a professional dancer and not an actor, there’s nothing stilted or wooden about her performance. Kenny Wormald, another pro dancer, is less animated as Ren, but he still easily carries the movie.


While the pair are surprisingly strong actors, they’re almost too good as dancers. In one of the DVD’s extra features, choreographer Jamal Sims notes that he had to remind the stars that their characters are not actually professionals, and they had to dumb down their dancing. (Hough says this means toning down all of her hair-whipping, or “hairography”.) But even with those limitations, the dancing in the movie is spirited and easy to watch.


Not all of movie works as well. A subplot focused on an all-around jerk named Chuck (Patrick John Flueger), a romantic rival for Ren, never quite comes together.  Chuck is a force that drags the narrative into all manners of meandering “redneckery”, from dirt-track car races to an absurd school-bus demolition derby. In all of his contests with Ren, Chuck is never rendered as a real person. It’s so easy for so many aspects of Footloose to descend into cartooniness, but it only really happens when Chuck is on screen, and his scenes feel like dull diversions from the real story.


It’s surprising that Chuck is the two-dimensional villain, because it’s easy for that fate to befall Reverend Shaw Moore (Dennis Quaid), Ariel’s father and hard-ass community pillar. It’s difficult to sympathize with the man who considers dancing as a gateway to sin and preaches fire and brimstone. But Brewer obviously has a lot of empathy for Reverend Moore and takes great pains to humanize him. His conflicts with Ariel and Ren are therefore more nuanced, and ultimately more interesting. Brewer is alone on his commentary track, but it’s still pretty thorough and revealing, and you can tell from the way he talks that he thoughtfully considered this conflict from all sides.


Not all of the Blu-Ray’s features are as illuminating. “Jump Back: Re-Imagining Footloose” discusses remaking Footloose for a new generation, and goes into detail about what’s been changed and updated. While the material is interesting, it’s clear that there some rights issues at work, and barely any footage from the 1984 Footloose is used, even when it would be helpful to show it. Instead, the feature comes across as a side-by-side comparison with only one side.


Better is “Dancing with the Footloose Stars”, which shows what went into all of the dance numbers. The story of the movie is echoed in the way the dances are put together, from the makeup of the town (which is more diverse and real-looking than in the original Footloose) to the relationship between characters. “How do you have amazing choreography without it looking choreographed?” Brewer asks, and the cast tries its best to answer. But the mandate to make everything exist in the real-world is thankfully not dogmatic. For all its grounding, the real joy in the movie is watching someone really shake it in a pair of bright red cowboy boots.

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