“Because it might lead to dancing” is the punchline to a old joke with a number of denominational and other variations, all having to do with why Christians of a given persuasion are against sex before marriage, or in general, etc. (I was raised Christian Reformed, and we told it about ourselves.)
Flip-flopping Christian moral concerns about dancing and sex along a different axis, Herbert Ross’s 1984 dance movie Footloose proposed that not allowing kids to dance would lead to trouble. A small-town crusade against the evils of rock music and dancing, led by John Lithgow’s hidebound, authoritarian Rev. Moore, created a repressive environment in which bored kids acted out in unhealthy ways until big-city new kid Ren McCormack (Kevin Bacon) led a dance revolution that helped the town relax and get its groove back.
I have no nostalgic brief for Footloose, which I saw for the first time only recently. It’s no classic, but I was mildly surprised at how comparatively engaging it is. The setup of square patriarchy versus hip youth threatens to devolve into church-bashing, but Ross’s film subverts this to a degree: Rev. Moore is gradually humanized, while Ren is ultimately seen, smart-alecky attitude notwithstanding, to be a decent kid. What could have been an anti-church motif ultimately becomes an affirmation of a more moderate, relaxed Christianity.
In general, the remake cleaves faithfully to its source material, often beat for beat and line for line, though some lines are used in different contexts and with different meanings. As Ren, dancer Kenny Wormald is a likable presence, and while he doesn’t have Bacon’s charisma and doesn’t try, he doesn’t need a body double for the dance sequences. Miles Teller ably fills Chris Penn’s shoes as Ren’s new friend Willard, a scrappy local boy who can’t dance. Ren drives the same yellow VW Bug, though he also has an iPod, and there are a few other concessions to the intervening decades.
Why a remake? The main rationale seems to be to update the 1980s soundtrack and styles with a contemporary “Southern grit” blend (Hustle & Flow director Craig Brewer’s term) of country, hip-hop and alt rock, with the town of Bomont relocated from the Midwest to the sultry South. Even here the remake is suffused by nostalgia for the original, with cover versions of several songs, including the title track by Kenny Loggins, reworked by country star Blake Shelton.
A secondary goal seems to be to soften and sanitize the ’84 film’s critique of the church — to give it a faith-friendly spin. Lithgow’s buttoned-up, combed-over authority figure is reimagined as a folksy, approachable Dennis Quaid. Quaid smiles warmly as he preaches, and his congregation chuckles appreciatively. There’s no sign here of stifled kids suffering through excruciating services with plodding renditions of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
Where Ross gave us Moore’s no-fun sternness up front and only later revealed its roots, the remake explains everything from the get-go. A prologue dramatically depicts the fatal accident claiming the lives of five teenagers, including Moore’s son, following a night of dancing and drinking. In this version, Moore’s early line “We are being tested” is not in a sermon, but in public testimony advocating restricting public dancing by minors.
All this has the effect of making Moore and the dancing ban as comprehensible as possible from the outset, which, in 2011, is not very. The moderating efforts continue as the pastor’s wayward daughter Ariel (Julianne Hough) engages in a foolhardy vehicular stunt with her boyfriend Chuck (Patrick John Flueger) that’s downright tame compared to the near-suicidal two-vehicle hijinks in the original — and then, driving it home, Ariel is told off for her recklessness by a girlfriend in a teary “I don’t know who you are any more” speech.
Ah, but this time Chuck is a stock car racer, and the stunt is at a local track in front of a big audience — and it’s something Ariel has done repeatedly. Isn’t she concerned that word of it will get back to her father, who believes she is at a girlfriend’s house doing schoolwork? Also, as a friend noted, if Bomont has NASCAR action, it’s not like there’s nothing for kids to do, as in 1984. The racetrack becomes even more of a liability when the tractor chicken contest — a credible bit of small-town kitsch in the ’84 film — morphs into a spectacular school-bus race that is, hands down, the remake’s worst idea.
In this version, Ren’s mother has died of leukemia, and he comes to Bomont alone. The trauma of Ren’s mother dying replaces the defining trauma in the original of being abandoned by his father — an event that doesn’t seem to have bothered Ren at all here. These days, a father abandoning his family is evidently small beer, hence the necessity of killing off the mother.
Lithgow’s pastor was a moral scold, but he was also a moderating force in some ways, for example resisting censorious efforts in his community, including book-burning. All that’s gone, along with humanizing moments between Moore and his wife and daughter. Mrs. Moore (Andie MacDowell) still gets a line about considering her husband a great preacher, etc., but the sense of genuine admiration and support is gone. I think her first notable line to her husband is a harsh “You’ve done enough.”
In 1984, Ariel was torn between rebellious impulses and remnants of respect and admiration for her father that are no longer in evidence. One of the most thoughtful moments in the original involved Ariel finding her father alone in the church practicing a sermon. “I used to love to watch you work up your sermons,” she reminisced wistfully. “Now I see a stage, a costume — it’s show business, isn’t it?” Disarmingly, Moore wasn’t shocked or upset; his candid reply was that it was the only way he knew to reach people’s emotions. Now it’s Ren who finds Moore in the empty church. “I thought you were someone else,” Moore says on spotting Ren in the pew. No kidding.
Brewer shoots the dance sequences with flair, but can’t match Ross’s atmospheric staging of the big blowing-off-steam warehouse set piece. Where Brewer blows past Ross is in flagrant eroticism, with lots of down-and-dirty bumping and grinding. Alone with Ariel, Chuck lays her down on the hood of his car, and after briefly resisting his groping she unlaces her tiny top (at which point the scene cuts away). When Ariel defiantly tells her father that she’s not a virgin, she no longer describes this as a sin, or refers to the appropriateness of confessing it in church.
The upshot is that this new Footloose is a dumbed-down, sexed-up take on a story that was already risqué and not too bright — one that shies away from the ’84 film’s critique of the church, but is also further from its lingering Christian worldview.
The original’s humanism is also given short shrift. In his big speech before the town council, Bacon not only quoted scripture, but offered an anthropological apologia for dancing, citing cultural as well as cultic reasons why people have always danced: for a good harvest or a good hunt, to show community spirit, to celebrate. Wormald gives a rote recitation of gotcha proof texts, but doesn’t bother with the anthropological stuff. Perhaps nobody involved could really take Bomont’s anti-dancing stance seriously enough to bother to answer it?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.