Ah, 1984! The year Ronald Reagan proclaimed it was “morning in America,” and Steve Jobs told us his new Apple computer would ensure that “1984 won’t be like 1984.” It was so long ago, children, that MTV actually played music videos, many featuring the young Michael Jackson, and others — “Footloose,” “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” “Almost Paradise,” “Holding Out for a Hero” and the irresistible title track — from a new movie about a teen’s right to dance to loud music. Now it’s a chilly October in America, everyone’s grumpy, Jackson and Jobs are dead, and the only thing that hasn’t changed is that someone believes we need a movie called Footloose.
In fact, virtually the same movie, about a big-city high-school rebel bringing his rock-’n-roll sizzle to a sleepy town that has banned dancing. That premise had Amish whiskers 27 years ago, when Kevin Bacon was the kid and John Lithgow the town’s hellfire pastor in the Herbert Ross movie from Dean Pitchford’s script. What’s it got for 2011, when even puritans love Dancing with the Stars as long as Chaz Bono isn’t on it? This time, actual dancer Kenny Wormald and Soul Surfer‘s Dennis Quaid play the generational rivals, but nearly all other elements are identical: the movie’s logo, its plot, its characters, many of the shots and, most peculiarly, the songs. Because if there’s one way for adolescents to break free from the hidebound conventions of the previous generation, it’s to kick up their heels and dance to exactly the same tunes that Mom and Dad loved when they were kids.
After his mother dies, Boston kid Renn (Wormald) comes to live with his aunt (Kim Dickens) and uncle (Ray McKinnon) in Bomont, Ga., which three years before banned “vulgar, demeaning amplified music” and “lewd and lascivious dancing” in the wake of a car crash that killed five high-schoolers. One of the dead kids came from the family of Rev. Shaw Moore (Quaid), his wife Vi (Andie MacDowell) and their daughter Ariel (Julianne Hough). The boy’s death has launched pretty Ariel into a territory somewhere between damaged and deranged. She stands on railroad tracks as a train speeds toward her, and flirts dangerously with surly local outlaw Chuck (Patrick Flueger), whose biker gang seems sanitized enough to be called Heck’s Angels. Ariel also comes on to Renn [EM] who, though he sports a Back Bay accent and a greasy coif, isn’t that kind of boy. When the one-time gymnast isn’t angry-dancing out his frustrations, he’s hitting the library books, including the Bible, to build a case that will convince the Bomont burghers to let their kids dance.
You may wonder why the Bomont board, given the circumstances of the youngsters’ deaths, didn’t ban teen driving instead of dancing. Also why so many dramas resort to cadging sympathy for their troubled characters by killing off loved ones. But give points for crazy reverence to director and script adaptor Craig Brewer, whose much grittier Hustle & Flow, back in 2005, also made a hero of a street renegade with a musical dream. Handed a story that was itself an informal remake of countless ’50s B movies about kids trying to make their parents understand the cleansing ecstasy of early rock ‘n roll — homilies that usually ended with the elders clapping their hands (though on the wrong beat) as Bill Haley & His Comets pounded out “Rock Around the Clock” — Brewer must have convinced himself that a schlocky old movie would speak eloquently to today’s teens.
About half of the time, he pulls it off, nonchalantly integrating the town and its lovers, and acknowledging that in a country whacked by recession it’s not a bad idea to dance off the social and political frustrations. Brewer also chose a strong cast. Wormald, with the soft voluptuousness of Val Kilmer and James Franco in their early years, has screen-seizing appeal, an easy charm and all the right moves on the dance floor. Quaid serves up a more nuanced and conflicted authority figure than Lithgow’s self-righteous preacher; and Miles Teller, so impressive as the young man Nicole Kidman bonds with in Rabbit Hole, is a yokel sweetheart in the role of Renn’s best friend (played by Chris Penn in the original). And though anyone over 40 will be tempted to give the willful Ariel a good spanking, Hough crawls into the roiling soul of a good girl trying her damnedest to be bad. Jamal Sims, who choreographed the Step Up movies, pours plenty of verve and expertise into the break-dancing, country-line dancing and plain old cuddle-up slow-dancing.
All right, maybe there is something timeless in anachronism. Maybe Brewer has located the heart beneath the hoke. And, just possibly, a critic steeped in cynicism can clap along to the disreputable, danceable seductions of the 2011 Footloose.