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In hindsight, the 1984 hit Footloose—starring Kevin Bacon and directed by Herbert Ross—along with its contemporary Flashdance, can be seen as the link between the old Hollywood model of a let’s-put-on-a-show musical, based on original songs brought to life in elaborate choreographed numbers, and the later Hollywood model of youth films, perfected in the ’80s by John Hughes and terminally calcified over the decades to follow, in which a contemporary pop music soundtrack serves as both a structural backbone to the film itself and an ancillary product that can outgross and outlive the film that spawned it. The 2011 Footloose—starring dancer Kenny Wormald in the Bacon role and directed by Craig Brewer of Hustle & Flow fame—is an extraordinarily faithful remake, recycling four songs from the first Footloose, plus plot, characters, and iconography. (The main dude rocks skinny ties and drives Bacon’s yellow Beetle, the former because it’s in again and the latter as a nod to Brewer’s wider project of rehabilitating old junk.) Like Ross’s own old-meets-new appropriation, the 1981 meta-musical Pennies From Heaven, in which Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, and Christopher Walken danced and lip-synched to Depression era-standards, Brewer’s Footloose is an attempt to get at the heart of contemporary culture via slavish re-creation of an earlier time.
You know the story: A smart-aleck city teen named Ren (Wormald) moves to a tiny rural town where dancing has been banned, falls for the defiant daughter (Julianne Hough) of a local preacher/city council member (Dennis Quaid), and, with the support of hayseed sidekick Willard (Miles Teller), ultimately pushes the town’s moral needle by using Bible verses to recast his bumping and grinding as a holy act. Most jaw-droppingly, Brewer nearly shot-for-shot re-creates the centerpiece of Ross’s film, the tour de force explosion of teen rage set in an empty warehouse, in which Ren fights back against his daily humiliations via gymnastic solo dance. (Key differences: Brewer sets the scene to the White Stripes, and Wormald, unlike Bacon, seems to have no need for a dance double.)
For all of his self-conscious copying of Ross’s movie, Brewer does subtly adjust for the full generation gap between films. Some of these tweaks—a stray “the terrorists have won” joke, repeated references to “this recession”—might not stand the test of time. But others reveal a larger, smarter philosophy at work here. While hewing closely to Footloose’s original story and themes, Brewer’s film throws the standard high school movie notion of a teenage caste system out the window. Class, race, academic stratification, subcultural affiliation—all of the differences that usually keep kids to their own cliques or pit them against one another in teen films are treated here as meaningless. (Only the one pure villain can be categorized by movie type—he’s vintage Redneck Dick.) This flat playing field might have an element of post-racial, multi-demo-courting fantasy to it, but it also feels accurate. The sheer diversity of music in the movie—Quiet Riot, Three 6 Mafia, Blake Shelton, Smashing Pumpkins—shows how Brewer gets that kids don’t need to define/confine themselves to a specific “type” in a post-downloading, open-information era. Brewer seems to understand that youth culture, both as performed and as consumed, is no longer hierarchical in quite the same way that Hollywood has been portraying it as since the ’50s—that high school, like so much else on the planet, no longer operates according to the traditional power pyramid. For the first time in history, when someone says, “I like all kinds of music,” they might actually mean it.
Brewer’s reverence toward his source material and simultaneous of-the-moment self-awareness is also a great strategy for capturing two demos at once: young girls who never saw the original and their mothers, who will probably find it tough to resist Brewer’s deliberate retracing of Ross’s steps (including a faithful redo of the “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” montage, in which Kevin Bacon taught Chris Penn how to dance). What Footloose seems to most want to be is a mother-daughter girls’ night out, with Gen X moms crossing fingers in the hope that that their tween offspring will be receptive to the movie’s lessons about dating studious, drug-free gymnasts over stoned, sleazy older dudes. (By any real-world parent’s measure, “bad boy” Ren would actually be the best catch in town.)
Unfortunately, that wholesome messaging doesn’t leave much room for what Brewer does best—namely, music-backed scenes that, through lurid lighting, slick camera whips and glides, and the sounds of breathing and grunting mixed just above the music, put the viewer inside a body in total abandon to a song. Nothing in Footloose comes close, in this respect, to the best moments of Brewer’s previous, vibrant if uneven films Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan, but this heartfelt retread of a notably thin popcorn property does come alive during an illicit dance-off at a drive-in or when a line dance devolves into sweaty gyrations—basically, when the teenagers are fulfilling the grown-ups’ worst fears.