Saturday, October 15, 2011

Gotta Dance: FOOTLOOSE

Were we ever really supposed to believe that in 1984, even in the small Southern town setting of Herbert Ross’s Footloose, a law could be passed banning dancing? I don’t think so, which is just as well, since the idea grows even more unbelievable in 2011 as we see a modern version of the same story. No, this law is metaphor, pure and simple, for generation gaps, for the way parents try to hold on to their teens even as they pull away. That’s why this story worked in 1984 and why it still works now.  The first time around it was an agreeable, casually iconic piece of 80’s kitsch. This time, the material has been transmuted into a terrific piece of crowd-pleasing pop art.

The biggest reason for the improvement between the two versions is the director Craig Brewer. With his two breakout, decidedly R-rated, features Hustle and Flow and Black Snake Moan, he explored Southern life through the overlapping prisms of morality and music. Those films, gritty, dripping with an atmosphere of humidity, sex, and danger, portrayed the South in a fundamentally honest, if occasionally heightened way, treating the small town folks and their culture with clarity and honesty entirely devoid of condescension. These are films that get under the skin, that are so sharply written and performed that the reality of the stories are never in doubt.

He brings this skill to bear on the fundamentally silly bubblegum material of Footloose with the same lack of condescension and the same eye for detail. He doesn’t just remake Footloose; he makes Craig Brewer’s Footloose. This is a terrifically textured film, right from the opening scene in which a bunch of kids bop around to the same Kenny Loggins’s song that opens the original. Here, in what is clearly a secret, edgy, teen party of some kind, the kids’ feet are tapping and stomping on a sticky makeshift floor that wobbles a bit with each bounce, rattling the crumpled and half-empty red plastic cups that littler the ground. I could smell the drying drinks and feel the heat of the tightly packed dancers. But the fun they’re having won’t last long.

Speeding away from the party, laughing and singing, a group of teens cross the center line and slam into an oncoming truck. It’s a moment that plays out in quick visceral specificity of crunching metal and flares of fire. This was always the inciting incident for the town’s ban on dancing, but here, shown so specifically, it feels rawer and more convincing. A voice over that leads into a cut to a town meeting features the town preacher (played wonderfully by Dennis Quaid), whose son was among the dead, delivering a tearful speech advocating for the law. As he speaks in front of the townspeople, it’s as if he’s speaking directly to his wife (Andie MacDowell), promising to keep kids safe. It is a surprisingly moving and effective moment. The plot dictates that he is the authority figure that will be in opposition to the protagonist, but he’s also just a man who thinks that he’s doing what’s right.

This plot is familiar, but at every turn it feels pleasantly fresh, suddenly strangely relevant in ways it never has been. Brewer sets the film specifically in the now, referencing the financial difficulties of living in this recession, situating itself as being about the ways each new generation inevitably takes control of its own identity. This is not just a story of repression or reactionary ideologies and Brewer takes care to keep blame away from the small town itself. This is a story of young people learning when to accept and when to challenge the ways of the establishment. That may be communicated with a bit of a silly metaphor, but that doesn’t take away from the underlying truths expressed.

The remainder of the film unfolds as anyone who has seen the original (or the Broadway musical it inspired) will remember, with a few good changes (bus racing instead of tractor chicken) and musical callbacks. Big city boy Ren MacCormack (dancer Kenny Wormald, quite good in what is essentially his acting debut) shows up in town to live with his Uncle (Ray McKinnon) and his family. He finds small town life difficult to adjust to and is further stymied by his reputation as a hoodlum, a reputation seemingly earned just because he’s new, likes to play his music loud, and show off his dance moves and sarcastic attitude. This draws him close to the wild, rebelling preacher’s daughter (Julianne Hough), with whom he starts a tentative flirtation despite her thuggish boyfriend (Patrick John Flueger). But the sense of small town restrictions constricts Ren’s sense of agency. When his new pals (Miles Teller and Ser’Darius Blain) tell him dancing’s illegal, why that’s just the last straw. Something has to change. These kids need to dance!

The approach to the dancing in the film is fun. The illegal dancing in the film is furtive, and choppy, shot in ways that feels urgent, covered with sweat, even sexual. The big city escape, which ends up employing infectious line dancing (that’s the first time I’ve used those words in that order), plays out in lovely long shots that allow us to see the whole bodies of the dancers as they execute their movements. Later, a scene involving a group of little girls teaching some dance moves is awfully cute and a fun callback to the original. Finally, the dancing that ends the film is shot with a triumphal sense of natural energy. The world of the small town in the film feels so still and clamped down, that the sequences of music and dance burst out of the texture with a quick, volatile sense of release.

As with the dancing, Brewer’s textures keep this film lively and engaging, instead of settling down into rote remake mode. Along with stellar cinematography by Amy Vincent, this is a film that feels lit up with an inner glow and situated with great care in an environment that feels real and convincing. This is a sweaty, oily, film where the textures of every piece of the cars, the fields, and the characters’ skin are vividly apparent. When the teens cut loose, I could feel the energy, the heat, the effort, the exhaustion, and their fun.

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