Two of these remakes hit the theatres this past week: The Thing, which was a remake of a remake, and Footloose. Given the recent resurgent interest in dance among Americans via TV shows like Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance, there at least seemed some logic in trying to repackage Footloose for a generation too young to have seen the original in theatres.
Herbert Ross’s Footloose came out in 1984, at the height (or depth, depending on your political point of view) of the Reagan years, when the relatively benign “born-again Christian” fad launched by Jimmy Carter had given way to the repressive evangelical right exemplified by Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. Today, as we watch people who would once have been regarded as extremists even by Republicans line up to contend for that party’s presidential nomination, each trying to brand the others as not pure and righteous enough, the movie’s premise of a small town where dancing is banned has once again become at least somewhat credible. Perhaps the time has indeed come for a Footloose revisit.
Unlikely as it may seem to those who grew up loving the original, I’m here to report that the 2011 remake, directed by Craig Brewer, isn’t half-bad. True, it lacks the winsomeness of the young Kevin Bacon in the lead role of Ren, the cynical teenager from the Big City who has to adapt to life in a danceless backwater burg in the Bible Belt. But in spite of the fact that his curriculum vitae consists pretty much exclusively of professional dancing, not acting credits, Kenny Wormald does not embarrass himself. In terms of emotional expressiveness, he’s as convincing as he needs to be in this lightweight vehicle, and he dances well enough to make us believe that he really was a star gymnast at his old high school.
Wormald’s Boston accent is homegrown (though it seems to come and go), and his upper-class upper lip and chipmunky front teeth could easily belong to a Kennedy cousin – although the hair, makeup and costume crew seem to be conspiring with the cameraman to catch him looking like James Dean as often as possible. Kevin Bacon, in his day, was presented as more of an edgy New Wave kind of character rather than a retro icon; but no matter. The narrative of an outsider taking on the Puritanical power structure of an American small town transcends era, in a way.
If you go see the new Footloose looking to make a checklist of temporal updates, you’ll be disappointed. Those that are incorporated are few and well-chosen, and much of the script follows the original verbatim, or nearly so. Ren’s best new line – the one that made the moviehouse audience cheer out loud – is a scathing put-down of a kid who uses the term “fags” as an insult. The new kid in town has an iPod, but the townies still listen to their music on old cassette players, and although there is a reference to cell phones being not unknown in rural Bomont, modern technology is not a major focus. The town is in Georgia this time, not Utah; what we lose in terms of spectacular mountain backdrops for the “chicken race” scene (in which buses here replace tractors), we gain back in some juicy Delta blues bottleneck guitar filler in several quieter scenes. Unlike the original, it’s far from an all-white cast; the school’s football team is almost totally black, the warehouse where Ren works becomes a black-owned-and-operated cotton gin and there’s even some credible interracial romance.
In fact, the most enjoyable moments in the movie are those that spotlight the members of that interracial pair, separately and together, played by two engaging newcomers. The luminous and funny Ziah Colón totally takes over the screen every time she’s on it, as Rusty, the female lead’s loyal, feisty friend – a breakout role for a young Sarah Jessica Parker in the original. Her boyfriend is Willard, Ren’s geeky sidekick: the guy who goes from hopelessly white, rhythm-impaired wallflower to totally coordinated, confident jitterbug/breakdancer in less than ten minutes, to the tune of “Let’s Hear It for the Boy.” The sequence is every bit as improbable and every bit as charming and funny as it is in the original; and Miles Teller, with his wonderfully wonky geeky-sidekick face and good-natured bearing, more than holds his own in the role originated by the late Chris Penn.
The wryest lines in the new movie are saved for Ren’s Uncle Wes, played with just the right mix of blue-collar terseness and vinegar by Ray McKinnon. Also delivering strong performances are Andie MacDowell – a bit more simpatico than Dianne Wiest in the role of Vi, the straitlaced preacher’s wife – and Dennis Quaid, offering a florid, sweaty Southern turn on the preacher himself, Reverend Moore, that makes his predecessor John Lithgow’s excellent Utahn interpretation look like a constipated Anglican vicar.
As in the original, the weakest character remains Ariel, the preacher’s-daughter-turned-rebel who ends up as Ren’s love interest for reasons that never seem very persuasive. Even my 16-year-old male moviegoing companion was wrinkling his nose and dismissing her as a “total slut”; by the time she has her big, loud character-development scene of confronting her father, it’s just too darn late in the storyline for the neglected daughter to win our sympathies. Neither Lori Singer in the 1984 version nor Julianne Hough in the new one had a prayer of redeeming this thankless role.
Like the original, the dancing is ubiquitous, well-executed and fun to watch. Ren’s famous solo number, dancing out his rage in the empty warehouse, laudably dispenses with some of the credulity-stretching balletic moves that necessitated several doubles for Kevin Bacon in the original. And the soundtrack, while incorporating a couple of the songs from the original, brings the movie into the present decade without losing the spunky, upbeat feel that made so many people run out and buy the CD – or was it still the cassette? – of Footloose the first. All in all, as remakes go, you could do a lot worse.