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Non-Review Review: Footloose (2011)

Footloose is a strange beast. On one hand, it copies huge swathes of text from the original film, with lines spoken almost verbatim. On the other hand, the movie has the courage of its convictions, daring to update the story for modern times, adding quite a bit of modern subtext to the film. I think this approach is part of the reason the film works so well, but also its chief weakness. For all its clever insights and wonderful thoughts on the cost of security, it does wind up feeling just a tad heavy-handed. Still, it’s perhaps the best “dance” movie I’ve seen since the original 1984 version, so it must be doing something right.

Everybody cut loose!

There’s a weird balance at the heart of Footloose, as the movie tries to be just a fun teenage coming-of-age adventure, but also a parable able the dangers of noble fundamentalism. The two elements don’t often sit together quite well, but the film manages its mood remarkably well. It helps that director Craig Brewer (hardly the most obvious choice for a film like this) has assembled a superb cast capable of playing well to both extremes. There’s a wonderful whimsy to a lot of Footloose, as it attempts to transpose the original’s roots to the modern day.

While Kevin Bacon’s Ren McCormack might have been the epitome of cool with those sunglasses and those tight blue jeans, this modern version of Ren is very much a hip “alternative” teen, seemingly wearing his old-fashioned sunglasses and geeky tie as an ironic statement rather than the height of modern fashion. In the original, Ren was the kid perfectly in-tune with pop culture, while here Ren feels distinctly counter-cultural, attending line-dancing and driving a dorky little car. In a way, it’s a statement on the appeal of the movie: what was once hip and happening is now quirky and kitsch. Brewer shrewdly manages to give the character a hint of depth by transposing him directly from the eighties, taking a protagonist who was once the coolest kid on the block, but is now distinctly individual.

They'll be dancing... dancing in the halls...

While the original film hardly took itself too seriously, there’s a knowing irony to Brewer’s movie as it lays out all the conventions and clichés we associate with this type of film – from the respectable establishment run by a cool old guy who turns it into a hip joint, through to the dancing montages and the moment where our lead is asked to present his case to the elders, and to appeal for the right of “kids to be kids.” He phrases it better, but that’s the point. Brewer is very clearly just hitting all the items on his “dance” movie checklist, but also seems refreshingly cheeky in doing so – and there’s always a distinctly serious undercurrent beneath a knowingly smirking exterior. There’s an early scene with the leading lady and her mandatory douchebag boyfriend that starts out as a fairly standard establishing character moment, but becomes increasingly creepy. “I’m not a kid,” she tells him after rebuffing his advances. Every inch a sexual predatory, the boy goads her, “Prove it.” It’s a cold moment that’s all the more effective for being surrounded with standard and conventional fare.

The most interesting (and, occasionally, most frustrating) aspect of the remake is the clever attempt to contextualise it within modern America. The original Footloose was very much a product of its time, one about kids shaking off the oppressive shackles of a generation that didn’t know how to relate to them – it was almost a belated sixties tale of generational conflict in a part of America that free love had somehow missed, complete with book-burnings and such. While I’m incredibly fond of the film, I can’t argue it was a complex piece. Here, Brewer frames the story against a very modern America. In fact, despite his protests, Ren leaves Boston (“Bahston”) to see the “real” America, the conflict between the competing demands of freedom and security.

No rock music doesn't mean no Beetles...

Reverend Moore, the antagonist of the story, is the character who benefits most from the transition. I love John Lithgow, but Dennis Quaid simply has more material to work with. Reeling from a tragedy years ago, the local community has taken strong measures to ensure the protection of its youth. It’s very much a metaphor for the modern political climate in America, with Moore standing for the politicians seeking to promise citizens security at the cost of individual liberty. “We don’t expect you to understand the things we do to keep you safe,” he tells his daughter, as he is still struggling to come to terms with a very grave loss. So he institutes a curfew, and he bans dancing.

Now, the idea of banning dancing in modern America seems like a ridiculous one, and the original film never really looked too deeply into the ban – it just treated it as a necessary conceit. Here, Brewer does the same – the film is never entirely serious – but he does try to offer us a very real and tangible motivation for a crazy legislative move like that. In political debates, it’s easy to accuse those in favour of such measures of being cynical or power-hungry, or deceitful, and the best aspect of the film is that Moore seems relatively reasonable (for a guy who wants to ban dancing, after all). He’s not a raving lunatic, or a “fire and brimstone” televangelist. What we hear of his preaching seems constructive, encouraging engagement with one another rather than blindly attacking new media.

Dennis the Menace...

He genuinely believes that what he is doing is the best way to keep the community safe, and he never seems cynical or calculating, even if he is a little condescending (“that conversation was not meant for your ears,” he tells Ren when Ren mentions a conversation between the Reverend and his uncle). Instead of attacking the type of people who believe in such things, which is a tactic that tends to by-pass the actual debate at hand, Brewer makes it clear that Reverend Moore is entirely honest about what he believes and why he believes it. It’s a nice touch, especially when many movies exploring religious beliefs tend to adopt an overly cynical view of adherents. Dennis Quaid is great here, as he often is. (Regardless of the quality of the film he’s in, he’s generally quite solid.)

On the other hand, the movie does seem more than a bit heavy-handed from time to time. “You can’t take away my right to dance!” Ren whines at one point, as if he’s about to break out the ACLU lawyers. Kenny Wormald is a dancer, not an actor, and it shows. He’s not terrible, and he’s not bad, but he’s not especially interesting as a leading man. Kevin Bacon had a wonderful screen presence, and the film really established him in the minds of audiences. It’s hard to imagine anybody coming out of this thinking Wormald will be the next Kevin Bacon. The political subtext is fascinating, but it occasionally gets just a bit too much, particularly during the justifications and back-and-forths. There were times when I almost forgot that they were talking about dancing.

So they think they can dance?

The other weakness of the film is that it doesn’t really flow towards the end – it just stops and starts as it enters the third act. There are several logical endpoints or moments that could have been truncated, but the movie just keeps on going – especially when the ending becomes a foregone conclusion and there’s no conflict remaining. I do appreciate that, like the original, the movie deals with the idea of reconciliation and peaceful resolution rather than ideological antagonism (with Ren trying to convince the townfolk rather than undermine them), but it just goes on a little bit too long for its own good.

On the other hand, with the exception of Wormald, Craig Brewer has a rather wonderful cast here. In particular, Miles Teller is great as Williard, and he holds together the film’s “dance training” montage, which is no mean feat. Even Julianne Hough, another dancer rather than an actor, makes a solid female lead. In fairness, there’s a lot more of the movie riding on Wormald as Ren, and he does a decent job – he just doesn’t have the charisma to hold the film together, something that shows during the character’s occasional “emotional”moments. On the other hand, the kid can move, and I love that Ren’s movements here are more aggressive and combative, with kicks and elbows and that sort of thing, reflecting the sort of catharsis that dancing affords the character – Wormald communicates better through dancing than through dialogue, and the style dancing seems to actually say something about the film, rather than serving as an excuse to watch teenagers writhe.

What's cooking?

Footloose isn’t a great film, but it’s an entertaining little movie that manages to justify remaking a cult classic, reinventing an old story for our times. It is easily the best dance film I’ve seen from the original, and has a lot of heart, if you can look past the occasionally heavy-handed subtext and a somewhat padded final act.

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2 Responses

  1. I think being slavishly devoted to the original film hurt Brewer’s remake a lot; it stayed in the 80s, which is a double-hit since the original Footloose is itself stuck in the 50s. Brewer had the chutzpah to assert his racial politics in his own treatment of the movie; I don’t see why he couldn’t have brought other aspects of the film into 2011, particularly the sexual politics at play between teenagers. It feels very safe.

    It’s also a drag to watch, also as a result of that devotion. Footloose wasn’t a short film in the first place; Brewer made it slightly longer and slightly more of a slog.

    If he’d brought the film to current times, that might have changed. Fortunately, Brewer knows how to make his dancers look great and also translate their energy to the audience along with his own. Footloose plays VERY well during its dancing sequences, and I only wish there’d been more and the film had gotten to each of them faster.

    • I don’t know. I actually liked the fundamentalist aspect, I think that Brewer made it a lot more timely than book burning. But the dance sequences were good.

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