In 1983, in one of the biggest “What were they thinking?” moves of all time, Paramount Pictures signed Michael Cimino to direct Footloose. The reason the studio thought Cimino — who had won an Oscar for the bloody Vietnam war drama The Deer Hunter and bankrupted an entire studio with the colossal flop Heaven’s Gate —-was a good match for the story of a big-city kid who moves to a small town where dancing is banned has been lost to history.
Not surprisingly, Cimino left the project after demanding to rewrite Dean Pitchford’s original script: Cimino wanted to make the film “darker,” which understandably made the studio nervous. Herbert Ross, who specialized in Neil Simon adaptations and soft-edged Marsha Mason comedies, stepped in to direct Footloose, which became a box-office hit and made Kevin Bacon a star. And Cimino ran off to direct Oliver Stone’s script of Year of the Dragon, one of the wildest, most over-the-top and brazenly racist crime dramas ever released by a major Hollywood studio.
We are left to imagine how “Michael Cimino’s Footloose” might have turned out. But there’s a moment early in the new remake that hints at what might have been. Director Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan) is shrewd enough to open his Footloose by paying homage to the original, with a note-for-note cover of Kenny Loggins’ famed theme song sung by Blake Shelton, and an exhilarating opening credits sequence once again comprised primarily of dancing feet. And then, just as your spirits are soaring right alongside the frolicking kids onscreen, comes a horrible car crash that kills several of the teens and suddenly changes the mood from celebratory to funereal.
Brewer, who also co-wrote the new screenplay with original Footloose creator Dean Pitchford, places a lot more emphasis on the adults in the story, specifically Rev. Shaw Moore (Dennis Quaid) and his wife (Andie MacDowell), the leading proponents of the ban on dancing and loud music in the small town of Bomont following that fiery car wreck. Years later, the Boston teen Ren MacCormack (played by newcomer Kenny Wormald) moves to town, falls for Shaw’s daughter Ariel (Julianne Hough) and curiously causes sudden bursts of hip-hop dance-offs and line dancing wherever he goes.
Unlike most recent remakes of teen-oriented staples such as Fame, which are crass money-grabs with little of the spirit of the original pictures that spawned them, the new Footloose has been made by people with a genuine affection for the first film. Brewer has thrown in enough tips of the hat to the 1984 hit — from Ren’s yellow VW Bug to his gymnastic “angry dance” — to put a smile on the face of anyone who was a teenager in the 1980s and may now be bringing their own kids to bask in the Footloose experience.
And although Brewer had trouble casting the movie — everyone from Zac Efron to Gossip Girl’s Chace Crawford passed, resulting in a hot D-list cast of unknowns in the leading roles — the actors acquit themselves admirably. Wormald, a formally trained dancer, has a much wider and convincing repartee of moves than Bacon did, while Hough, familiar primarily to viewers of TV’s Dancing With the Stars, pulls off the necessary feat of seeming genuinely unattainable to Ren at first, even though everyone knows from the moment they meet that they’ll end up together.
The result is that rare breed of big-studio pictures: A remake that makes sense. Footloose has been given an effective contemporary makeover while preserving the spirit of the original and, with the deepening of the characters played by Quaid and MacDowell, a more believable and complex motivation for the central premise of the story. Whatever limitations the movie has are part of its charm. Like the original, Footloose is aimed squarely at teenage audiences who will nod in silent agreement when Ren argues, “This is our time.” Anyone old enough to wince or sigh over the patronizing nature of that line has no business anywhere near this movie — and it doesn’t want you there, anyway.
Cast: Kenny Wormald, Julianne Hough, Dennis Quaid, Andie MacDowell, Miles Teller.
Director: Craig Brewer.
Screenwriters: Dean Pitchford, Craig Brewer.
Producers: Craig Zadan, Neil Meron, Dylan Sellers, Brad Weston.
A Paramount Pictures release. Running time: 110 minutes. Brief vulgar language, vehicular violence, adult themes. Opens Friday Oct. 14 at area theaters.