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Footloose (2011)

The original Footloose is one of those films that I only saw once and a very long time ago. I remember some very good performances from Kevin Bacon and John Lithgow, and the soundtrack was of course sublime, but the movie doesn’t really mean much more to me. As such, I was hardly one of those people who were up in arms when the Hollywood Remake Machine chose that movie for its latest fuel.

My question wasn’t “How could Hollywood dare to remake this movie,” it was “Why would anyone want to?” I mean, if we’re being honest, the central premise of this movie is absolutely stupid. I could list the reasons why, but I really only need one: A law that bans public dancing and loud music would be such a flagrant violation of the First Amendment that no judge in the country would allow its passage. Moreover, the film takes place in some middle-of-nowhere town filled with overly religious rednecks. Last I checked, those were exactly the types of people who are constantly up in arms about their Constitutional rights.

So, we’ve got a dance movie with a lazy anti-authoritarian premise that has to be painfully shoehorned into modern times. The filmmakers would probably cram in some crazy hip-hop music or lame techno to make it all edgy and hip. Yeah, I was willing to kick back and let this movie bomb, same as everybody else. But yet again, for what feels like the umpteenth time this year, the exact opposite happened. The critical reviews came in, and they were actually positive.

Once again, gentle readers, I’m put in a previously unthinkable position. After sitting through the film myself, I find myself joining the herd to try and explain the improbable success of Footloose (2011).

Let’s start with how this movie addresses the central conceit: A small town passes a whole ton of laws as a tribute to five teenagers who were tragically killed in a car crash on their way back from a party. In the original film (if I recall correctly), the accident happened entirely offscreen. In the remake, it’s presented in the opening credits. This means that the instant the credits are over, we witness the passage of all these anti-partying laws and the passionate speech for why these laws are necessary, all while the tragedy is still fresh in the characters’ (and the audience’s) minds.

In doing this, the filmmakers immediately shifted the focus toward the “parents have to let their kids go” angle by explicitly bringing it forward at the outset. Yes, that theme was in the original, but the remake wastes absolutely zero time stating it loud and clear in no uncertain terms. Hamfisted? You bet it is. But the focus on this theme and on the emotional side of the premise is a key reason why the conceit works here.

Another of the film’s smarter choices is that aside from Rev. Moore and a couple of one-dimensional bullies in authority, all the adults in this film are perfectly okay — if not outright supportive — of our protagonist’s attempts to challenge the system. They know how idiotic these rules are, but they play along because… um… well, I guess we wouldn’t have a movie otherwise.

Okay, so even if it doesn’t necessarily make sense, the choice to include so many supportive adults is very refreshing to me. This way, the central conflict isn’t “city boy vs. country town.” It isn’t even necessarily a conflict between generations. Rather, this is a conflict between mindsets. There are the people who think that inhibiting the expression and growth of teens is a losing battle, and there are those who are convinced that teens aren’t smart enough or strong enough to find their own way without excessive rules. It’s as simple, and as complex, as that.

Finally, the focus on the “This is our time” theme was very smart because it’s so relevant. Teenagers and those who’ve freshly come of age are becoming an increasingly powerful political voice. Not only do they vote in droves (ie: The 2008 presidential elections), but they’re also extremely active in protests. And why wouldn’t they be? They’re unemployed, so what else do they have to do?

This current wave of high school and college graduates (the so-called “Millennials”) were welcomed to adulthood with a cold middle finger. The previous generation had fucked things over pretty badly, and the new adults aren’t happy about it. So, in retrospect, why wouldn’t a filmmaker want to tell a story about teens rebelling against adults to rectify outdated policies? Seems to me that such a story is more relevant now than ever!

Next, let’s discuss the other potential minefield: The music. First of all, I can confirm that several songs from the original soundtrack do appear in the remake. Some of them are presented in their original ’80s-tastic form (“Let’s Hear It for the Boy”), some are presented as modern covers (“I Need a Hero”), and some are presented in both forms (the “Footloose” theme). Additionally, the film seems to imply that when songs from the original movie are playing, the characters are actually hearing them and dancing along. Seems a little meta, but we’ll roll with it.

There are some additional songs, but they and the cover songs are all under the same genre, and it might surprise you which one it is. No, it isn’t hip-hop, nor is it techno. It’s country.

There’s no denying that country music has become a parody of itself in recent years. Country songs of late have become increasingly infused with rock and pop sensibilities, and most are deliberately made for a teen audience. In short, it’s everything that the modern Footloose needed. It’s energetic, it’s uniquely representative of this era’s music, and it’s something that white teenagers down South might conceivably listen and dance to. On paper, the pairing of Footloose and country music sounds inadvisable to say the least. In practice, it’s an ingeniously clever move, not to mention the heart and soul of this film.

In case you hadn’t noticed already, the film’s southern setting plays very prominently in this film. The original film was apparently set in Utah, so I’ll assume that this change came from director/co-writer Craig Brewer (previously responsible for Black Snake Moan, a film that virtually no one knows anything about except the title). Something else that Brewer changed is that instead of Chicago — as per the original — protagonist Ren McCormick now hails from Boston. Why? The accents. Ren speaks with a Boston accent and everyone else speaks with a southern accent, as a subtle omnipresent reminder that Ren is an outsider. The accents are pretty inconsistent in their use, I’m sorry to say, but they’re good enough to get the point across.

(Side note: The screenplay was co-written by Dean Pitchford, who also wrote the original film. Curious.)

And while I’m discussing changes from the original, the old Ren moved to Bomont with his mother. In the remake, Ren moves to live with his aunt and uncle after his mom died. Not only does this new version make more sense (could someone remind me why Ren’s mom decided to move from Chicago to the middle of nowhere?), but the common experience of losing a loved one provides an interesting emotional connection between Ren and the preacher.

Newcomer Kenny Wormald is suitably attractive and charming as Ren, and he very effectively gives off a sort of “bad boy” vibe. As for two-time “Dancing with the Stars” winner Julianne Hough (she wasn’t one of the stars), she very suitably plays a young southern belle with a mile-wide crazy streak. Alas, they each have too many scenes in which it’s just one flat line delivery after another.

Put simply, Hough is hardly the next great up-and-coming actress, and Wormald is sure as hell no Kevin Bacon, but they’re both good enough for their roles. They’re nothing more than passable, but given how difficult it is to find two incredible dancers of the right age who look their parts, I guess that’s impressive enough.

Faring considerably better is Dennis Quaid, in the role of Rev. Shaw Moore. After starring in so many turkeys over the past few years (Soul Surfer, Pandorum, the G.I. Joe movie, Legion, Horsemen, et al.), it feels kind of good to see him finally give a decent performance. I don’t know how he did it, but Quaid somehow managed to deliver a character who’s entirely sympathetic, while simultaneously making his overbearing attitude completely unsympathetic. The movie never wastes a single opportunity to show how wrong Shaw is, and Quaid somehow manages to be a participant in that even when he’s on the screen. Quaid could easily have played his character as a two-dimensional antagonist (as a few of his fellow actors did), but he instead played Shaw in such a way that it’s easy to root for his development as a character.

Also, Andie MacDowell makes an appearance as Quaid’s wife. I’ve always thought that MacDowell was a very overrated actress, with a range that seems limited entirely to “romantic comedy lead” and a face that isn’t nearly as pretty as so many films and make-up ads keep insisting. Fortunately, MacDowell makes no attempt to hide her age here and her screen time is strictly limited to what’s necessary. She shows up, she delivers a decent performance, and she leaves without overstaying her welcome. Very nice.

Last but not least, I should probably mention the remake’s similarities to the original. The story does follow that of the original pretty much beat for beat, and there are several shots and scenes that were almost completely lifted from the original. However, the remake is good enough to add a few flourishes. For example, the film makes up for a relatively lackluster climax with a fight scene that’s actually quite fun to watch. The “tractor chicken” scene from the original is referenced to, but then thrown away and replaced with something crazier and far more badass. But I think my favorite example comes late in the movie, in which a scene between Shaw and his wife in the original is elegantly made into a very sweet father/daughter moment.

Footloose (2011) is a film that absolutely shouldn’t work in any way, and yet it somehow does. The actors are all perfectly serviceable, the character development is solid, the music is perfectly suited to the setting and story, the dance scenes are amazing, and the entire film is shot and presented in such a way that it’s entertaining to watch from start to finish. This is one of those rare remakes that succeeds at staying true to the original and paying homage to it, while also managing to stay relevant and find an identity of its own. It certainly isn’t a masterpiece, any more than the original was, but it’s a very fun ride that’s far and away better than it had any right to be.

And if you don’t believe me, go see it for yourself.

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