Of all the classic dancing movies that I remember, Footloose is probably the best candidate for a remake. Can you imagine anyone trying to say “nobody puts baby in a corner” in a remake? Or any other movie trying to recreate the magic that was the Bee Gee’s Stayin’ Alive being played to a smooth John Travolta’s strut down the street?
No, those movies could only be done once. Footloose is different, however. Its themes of “city meets country” are evergreen, and whether city meets country (as in this movie), or whether country meets city (Coyote Ugly, for example), the result is always the same. Both sides discover they’re more alike than different, and America lives happily ever after. And if America living happily ever after doesn’t lend itself well to a remake, then I don’t know what does.
Relevant themes aside, the movie also has one other key ingredient that endears it to a remake. Its biggest stars are still translatable today. The Footloose theme song continues to be extremely catchy, and I couldn’t help but bob along when the movie opened with this classic. The movie’s other big star (as the name suggests) are the feet, and thankfully, feet look quite similar today as when they first made the movie. We’re reminded of this again immediately, in the opening scene’s homage to the original.
But while this modern movie is supposed to be a remake, it also pokes fun cheekily at the original. In the opening scene, for instance, we see feet. Lots and lots of feet. While the original did this to wow audiences (“what loose feet!”), this one adopts an angle that will be painfully familiar to any photographer who has ever taken a picture and realised that something critical had been cut off from the shot. When I saw the original I never felt this, but here I found myself thinking- where are the dancers’ bodies?
The humor of this scene is a little subtle, but in my favourite scene of the movie the laughs come thick and fast. We watch as Miles Teller clumsily ‘learns’ to dance to a song that was on the original soundtrack- “Let’s hear it for the boys”. The key difference? Rather than being used as a heart-wrencher, the song is now relegated to status of ‘oldie’, and is sung, tongue-in-cheek, by 7-year old girls belting classics from a ‘barbie’ karaoke set.
One thing is clear: humor is this movie’s strongest point, and Miles Teller in particular steals the show time and again with his brilliant comic acting. In his first scene, for instance, he bumps into the lead. They square off, trade insults, and look like they’re about to come to blows (oh no, not another teenage angst dealing with high-school movie…). But then at the perfect moment, Miles smiles and introduces himself: he’d been joking all along. The actor also has an effortless talent for physical comedy, and one scene in particular is practically worth the price of admission. As he listens to a story about a Russian menage a trois, Miles displays an array of priceless facial experiences and breathless anticipation. It sounds ordinary in the retelling, but trust me, it’s good.
Sadly, Miles is the only decent young actor in a show about young people. Julianne Hough is obviously an amazing dancer (though she doesn’t show it much) and extremely pretty, but she’s called upon to carry a very emotional role and she’s found lacking. Her brother dies at the beginning of the show, and her father votes in draconian laws like ‘no drinking, no coming home past 10pm, and… no dancing’ for the city. While all this is happening the camera is transfixed on her, so we know it’s important- but then we spend the rest of the movie trying to find out why. After the rules are set, something is different about Julianne. Early on we learn she used to be a real goody-two-shoes, but now she’s suddenly courting danger, and when pushed to her limits, even gives up her virginity to a nobody. The question is, why?
The pieces start falling together, but more because the plot (and dialogue) throws (not drops, throws) hints at us. Initially she seems thrilled by the high-life. She breaks the rules, and she seeks out the new city-boy, seemingly as a symbol of rebellion. But things are not so simple. When the boy rejects her (“I want to kiss you… someday”), her heart starts to soften. No, it’s not the high-life that attracts her, it’s something else. Eventually everything falls apart in a church as father and daughter confronts each other after she’s been beaten up by her ex-boyfriend. You’ve blamed our brother for everything, she screams at him, so that now nobody can do anything fun anymore- everyone remembers her brother for causing the draconian laws and not his virtues. Finally! We understand. She’s angry at her father for taking away her childhood fun, and for tarnishing her brother’s memory.
Or so we think. Nope, that’s not it. Something’s not right in this scene. After all, nobody else seems to care that there is no dancing (the standard response: a shrug, and ‘it’s the law’). And as for her brother, Julianne does not mention him anywhere else in the movie. There’s not a single scene where she recalls the memory of her brother. No, this was never about him. We finally (this time, well and truly) learn what the matter was when she utters this line, almost as a throwaway, to her dad after they patch things up: “I didn’t want to disappoint you”. So it turns out that it was about her all along. She saw how much her father did to honor her brother’s memory after he’d made a mistake, and in her adolescent jealousy she wanted this too. “Hey, I’m bad too, dad! Change the law for me!” There’s all this festering under the surface, but it never comes out. Julianne’s role is evidently limited to: smile, wear tight jeans, and dazzle.
That she does. Thankfully, the movie stays out of its own way. It knows that it has a crop of dancers masquerading as actors (none of that James Dean or even the original Kevin Bacon coming-of-age stuff here), and so the writers just put in strong dialogue that speak for themselves (they have no choice), and then stay out of the way as the stars do what they do best. They dance. The lead actor is extremely athletic, and he spends a lot of his dance routines in mid-air. We’ve all seen Julianne on Dancing With The Stars; and even the dorky Miles Teller shows himself a smooth operator on the dance-floor.
In the end, this movie still ends up being loads of fun. It’s funny, the dialogue is strong, and the actors aren’t really called upon to act all that much. They focus on doing what they do best- they dance. To the beat of a song that was first released the year I was born, and still holds the magical formula to get audiences off their seats.