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Cuttin’ Loose With The Original ‘Footloose’ — And Its Superior Remake

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
October 14, 2011

Director Craig Brewer makes a shrewd decision in the opening sequence of the new Footloose: Just like in the 1984 version, the film opens with shots of young legs and feet, kicking along to the tune of Kenny Loggins’ signature Oscar-nominated hit. But this time, the debaucherous students are singing along. They know the words. They even know when the beat starts to build, when it’s going to explode into a wild, exuberant declaration to cut loose. But this time, when that moment hits, there’s an added deadly oomph.

We know what Brewer is doing. He’s winking at us. After all, we know the words too. Singing along is part of the fun. But when you can sing along and still be surprised, it’s a rare treat.

I went into the new Footloose having never seen the original. (Although, thanks to a chance run-in my girlfriend once had with its square-jawed star, I can proudly say I am only two degrees removed from Kevin Bacon.) I did know the whole thing was essentially a play-by-play of its predecessor, with an identical storyline about a rebellious teen who moves to a small rural town with a draconian law against dancing. But without a map to the town of Bomont, I didn’t know the lines or the moves. All I could do was sit back and enjoy what I saw.

Afterwards, I donned my red tuxedo, stepped into the time-traveling DeLorean I keep in my backyard just for this purpose and jumped to 1984 to take in the original film for the first time, freed of any conceivable nostalgia trappings. And after I set foot back into the present, I knew there was a blasphemous message I had to deliver to Reverend Moore’s people: The new one’s better. Much better.

Brewer has laid down a transcendent cover song, like Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower.” He retains about 90 percent of Dean Pitchford’s original screenplay and yet somehow walks away with a film that’s light years more nuanced and fun.

How is this possible? There are a couple factors at play. An obvious one is that the leads this time around, Kenny Wormald and Julianne Hough, were dancers before they were actors and are therefore capable of actually, you know, shaking it. Unlike the first go-around, when Bacon’s endearingly smarmy Ren McCormack often seemed like he was the only kid in town who knew how to snap his fingers, the dancing here is skilled, sweaty and charged with energy. These kids could power a Chevy Volt across state lines.

Also not hurting things is Brewer’s impeccable eye for Americana. Footloose shares a lifeblood with his previous two features, the gritty redemption tale Hustle & Flow and the wonderfully bizarre Southern gothic Black Snake Moan (one of the more overlooked films of the 2000s). All three movies are enamored with the rustic topography and untamed mane of the American South. Brewer’s protagonists are big dreamers in small towns who will suffocate unless they can break out of their environments.

We see Ren’s desperation painted more starkly against the unbearable flatness of Bomont, the water tower that seems to be on the horizon no matter which way you look. No wonder he and Ariel need to rage against the machine. In 1984, the kids danced because it felt good. In 2011, they dance because they’ll die if they don’t.

Other key alterations fit so seamlessly into the narrative that it feels like they were always meant to be there, like Brewer has actually filmed the original script’s first draft. Ren has a more sympathetic background. Ariel’s rebellious spirit burns brighter. Reverend Moore’s preaching style, as interpreted by Dennis Quaid instead of John Lithgow, is now more down-home than fire-and-brimstone. And an unnecessary book-burning subplot is eschewed.

Now, don’t strip me of my license to critique nostalgic properties just yet. (You know how many years it takes to get one of those?) Herbert Ross’s original Footloose isn’t a bad film by any means, even in the modern day’s cruel, harsh light. Bacon still charms like the dickens, and his solo dance in the warehouse is indeed iconic … so much so that it inspired this excellent Flight Of The Conchords parody.

There’s a reason why MTV Films still thinks a movie with this title is relevant to America’s youth. The themes are timeless and speak to our most natural suspicions: first, that our parents are trying to Stop The Rock; and second, that we have the power to Change The World. Footloose was tough in that special ’80s way, a way that still catches your attention like a tie on the first day of school.

Besides, without the first version, Brewer wouldn’t have known what beats to hit. And we wouldn’t get to sing along. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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