‘Footloose’: Two left feet

October 11, 2011

There are so many threats to personal freedom in this country today – so many real, live boogie men out there trying to dictate how we live our lives – that creating false, obvious ones in movies for teens seems counter-productive.

Or maybe I should just say: Geez, “Footloose” sucked when it was a Kevin Bacon movie in 1984. Who thought remaking it, almost scene for scene and song for song, would improve it?

Someone, apparently – and, apparently, there’s a whole generation that sees nothing wrong with making reference to the ultra-lightweight original as “a classic.” Talk about grade inflation.

But let’s get back to my initial point. In “Footloose,” the villains are uptight social conservatives – led by a conservative minister – who have banned dancing, live music and late nights for teens in their small town of Bomont (relocated, for no apparent reason, from Oklahoma in the original to Georgia in this one).

Never mind increasingly restrictive abortion availability or draconian immigration laws or – well, the examples seem endless in a country where the religious right is still setting the political agenda in too many places. No, this is a town that bans music and dancing.

Which would be fine if this were a movie that was an artful metaphor for the larger society. But it’s not. Instead, just like the original, it’s a bogus feel-good melodrama built around ersatz popular music – lame hip-hop, bad power pop, worse country music – and the promise of dancing.

But only the promise. Director Craig Brewer – who built a lot of good will with “Hustle & Flow” and then squandered it with “Black Snake Moan” – seemingly has no clue how to film the meager dance sequences that choreographer Jamal Sims has put together.

It’s not like Sims doesn’t have a flourishing dance culture to work with, unlike Lynn Taylor-Corbett, who choreographed the original in the nascent days of break-dancing. In the nearly three decades since, there have been all kinds of pop-dance movements – and movies (like David LaChappelle’s “Rize”) that chronicled them.

You couldn’t tell that from Sims’ work here, which looks like a throwback to “Urban Cowboy” or perhaps the “Achy Breaky Heart” video. When lead actor Kenny Wormald cuts loose, as it were, he jumps into – what? Some blend of gymnastics and old-school musical-theater leaps that look like out-takes from “West Side Story.” And while cribbing from Jerome Robbins at least shows some taste, whatever there is of interest in that kinetic realm is undercut by the sloppy way Brewer frames the image: now showing the dancers from the waist up, now from the ankles down, without ever giving a sense of bodies in motion in space, which is what dancing is about.

I won’t launch into a dissertation on how music video destroyed the attention span needed to truly film dance. Let’s focus, instead, on how “Footloose” eats itself alive.

The story is essentially the same: A city kid named Ren (Wormald) moves to a small town – in this case, because his mother has died. So he’s been transplanted from Boston to Podunk, Ga., to live with his aunt (Kim Dickens) and uncle (Ray McKinnon), while he finishes high school.

He’s a fish out of water who recognizes his own kind in Ariel (Julianne Hough), a wild child who flouts as many town rules as possible because she – naturally – is the daughter of that prickly local minister (Dennis Quaid), Rev. Stickler, er, Moore. The reverend got the town council to criminalize youthful exuberance a few years earlier after a fatal car accident – preceded by (gasp) drinking and dancing to that awful rock music – that killed several of the town’s brightest youthful hopes, including Rev. Moore’s oldest son.

So it’s up to Ren to start the revolution among the town’s kids: to fight the power and bring back dancing. He’s not exactly Abbie Hoffman.

This tempest of youthful high spirits is artificial and overblown, closing in on the two-hour mark while containing barely enough drama or watchable dancing to justify half of that length. Wormald, Hough and their fellow castmates project the image of earnest teen power – as played by actors, most of whom are obviously in their 20s.

It’s neither enjoyably silly like “Grease” nor inventively sleazy like “Chicago.” Instead, “Footloose” is a tribute to cinematic contrivance, a product instead of an expression of anything remotely real.

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