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Monday, March 18,2013

Almost paradise?

It's debatable whether or not we needed a new version of 'Footloose,' but director Craig Brewer's remake is energetic fun

by James Sanford
To the generation that grew up in the early days of MTV — a.k.a. back when the channel was still showing music videos instead of chronicling the travails of teen moms or celebrating the debauchery of the “Jersey Shore” gang — the idea of remaking “Footloose” ranks right up there with letting Rebecca Black do a cover version of “Bette Davis Eyes.” Some 1980s icons are not to be tampered with.

And the resoled “Footloose” certainly sounded like a catastrophe-in-the-making for a while. Zac Efron was initially signed to play the role made famous by Kevin Bacon and the script was reportedly going to be similar to the lame Broadway musical adaptation, which sanded down the characters’ rough edges, watered down the conflicts and lost much of the story’s heart along the way.

Thankfully, after a couple of ill-fated attempts to get that version to the screen, director Craig Brewer was brought in. Although “Footloose” would seem like rather tame material for the man behind “Hustle and Flow” and “Black Snake Moan,” Brewer has approached the project with a deep appreciation for director Herbert Ross’ 1984 original. As a result, Brewer’s “Footloose” retains much of what made the first film connect with audiences and adds in a few flavors of its own, most notably some contemporary dance moves, a dash or two of hip hop and that sizzling Down South spiciness that pervaded both “Hustle” and “Moan.” It's far more fun than it has any right to be.

If Kenny Wormald and Julianne Hough aren’t always as emotionally expressive as Bacon and Lori Singer were, they are appealing and charismatic in their own way — and they definitely have an edge on their predecessors when they hit the dance floor. Wormald moves like a terpsichorean tornado, sliding, slithering, shuffling and even busting into an occasional Jerome Robbins’ “West Side Story”-style acrobatic whirl when necessary. “Dancing With the Stars” champion Hough is also lithe and lively, and when she and Wormald first face off in a steamy pas de deux during an impromptu party at a drive-in, “Footloose” truly catches fire.

Brewer has touched up Dean Pitchford’s original screenplay with a few snappy one-liners (country line-dancing is described as “a white man’s wet dream”) while leaving most of the plot intact. It’s still the story of Ren MacCormack (Wormald), a teen from the big city (in this case, Boston) who finds himself stranded in the Georgia bumpkinville of Bomont, where dancing is outlawed. The town’s spiritual leader, Rev. Moore (Dennis Quaid), is considerably more effective in swaying the town council than he is in preventing his devil-may-care daughter, Ariel (Hough), from cavorting with the local rednecks or dressing like a truck-stop trollop (“You could put a quarter in her back pocket and still tell if it was heads or tails,” one observer says of her painted-on denim shorts).

Instead of trying to improve on or reinvent what’s become a classic, Brewer’s movie honors the source, while making a few tweaks.

The Moral Majority was still a force to be reckoned with in 1984, which was reflected in the script. The reverend, who spewed fire and brimstone when John Lithgow played him, gives mellower sermons in this version, although he’s slightly fiercer when it comes to admonishing Ariel. Quaid puts his natural charm to good use; he’s also effective in revealing the man’s scarred heart, the result of having lost his son in a car crash that followed a post-high-school-graduation bash three years earlier. The theme of parental protectiveness taken to unwise extremes comes through even more clearly in this film than it did in the first one.

While sizable portions of the dialogue are preserved more or less verbatim, the new screenplay refashions a few of the characters. Ren’s aunt and uncle, previously portrayed as conservative chuckleheads, are given real substance and dimension by the terrific Ray McKinnon and Kim Dickens. Ariel, who was a risk-taking rebel in Singer’s characterization, is now slightly more confused and desperate, determined to bury her feelings by flirting with self-destruction and seeking out sexual adventures instead of looking for love. A key scene in which she tries to seduce Ren and is abruptly shut down is particularly sharply written.

This “Footloose” retains approximately half of the same songs from the original, although Brewer has some fun with his use of Deniece Williams’ “Let’s Hear It For the Boy” in the montage that shows Ren’s awkward buddy, Willard (a very funny Miles Teller), finally learning to dance. Some of the freshly added tunes, such as Big & Rich’s “Fake I.D.” and David Banner’s “Dance the Night Away” (heavily influenced by Shalimar’s “Dancing in the Sheets”), are pleasingly catchy numbers.

Other revisions and additions don’t jell quite as well. A subplot involving a rivalry between Ren and Ariel’s trashy boyfriend (Patrick John Flueger) was the weakest part of the first “Footloose” and it doesn’t play much better this time around, even though racing tricked-out school buses is somewhat more exciting than a chicken race with tractors. It’s also slightly hard to believe that in a gossipy hamlet like Bomont the good reverend wouldn’t be aware that Ariel was carrying on with the sleazy local racing star — especially after she hangs out of the window of his car while he takes a victory lap around the track in front of a cheering crowd.

Whatever dramatic shortcomings the movie may have are easy to forget, however, when Wormald and Hough begin moving their feet. Wormald’s furious solo in an abandoned warehouse — set to the beat of the White Stripes’ “Catch Hell Blues” — is appropriately rousing, and the finale, with everyone stomping up a storm to Blake Shelton’s version of the title track, is irresistibly energetic. It’s still debatable whether or not the world needed a “Footloose” remake, but Brewer and his crew have done a more than credible job. 
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