‘Footloose’: Dancing lets off steam, loses heat of original film

October 14, 2011

Back in 1984, the news hit the dance doubles hard: “Footloose” was going to have more story than dancing. But that choice has served fans of the original film well — we got more of Kevin Bacon’s finely pitched vulnerability, and the moves that made the final cut were brilliantly conceived, were exhilarating to watch and reign among the most memorable dance sequences in recent filmdom.

You can’t say that about the remake, which opened Friday and stars Kenny Wormald, a veteran of the competitive dance circuit, and Julianne Hough, who in 2007 partnered speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno to victory on television’s “Dancing With the Stars.” On the plus side, diversity has arrived in Bomont, the film’s fictional town. Newly multicultural, it looks a good bit more realistic than the all-white, somewhat stagey setting of the original. And in keeping with the urban demographics, the dancing is tougher, rougher and all-out sexier.

The new film runs on the same winning formula as the original — a story of righteous teen revolt — as a cocky city slicker comes to live in a small town that has outlawed dancing and whips his peers up in a seductive liberation movement. Conformity gets it in the teeth with a solid spin kick. Here, as before, the finale on a dance floor makes you want to cheer.

But does the rest of it touch a nerve? With the film gunning along like a hot rod — the dancing in particular — there isn’t much time to feel anything.

Every plot point is amped in the new version, and the dancers just about pop off the screen and into your lap. In our era of “Glee” and reality dance shows, this doesn’t feel as new and fresh as those stretches of youthful rebellion set to music looked 27 years ago. In fact, you could say the wild bumping and grinding in the new “Footloose” is the culmination of the glimpses of street dancing that had just started appearing in films around the time of the original “Footloose.” Break dancing was added as an afterthought to the 1984 film — director Herbert Ross reshot the finale with Los Angeles club dancers to inject some of the edginess that had lit up Jennifer Beals’s dancer-welder in “Flashdance” the year before. Just as diving headstands and spinning air flares had made jaws drop then, pelvis-popping krumpers score a similar effect now.

Where the new “Footloose” falters, however, is in emotional power. There is plenty of energy, with the dimpled Wormald as newcomer Ren MacCormack leading a cast of dancers flaunting the explosive moves that the film’s choreographer, Jamal Sims, made famous in his earlier “Step Up.” There is an intoxicating excursion into the world of country-western line dancing that comes across as the most fun you could ever have on a dance floor.

Yet the big disappointment is in the warehouse scene, where Ren cranks the volume in his battered VW bug and gives vent to his frustrations in a shadowy cavern at the edge of town. This is truly the heart of the movie, the solo that tells us who this scarred young man is and why he feels dancing is worth fighting for.

In the original “Footloose,” Lynne Taylor-Corbett, a ballet choreographer who would go on to Broadway, created a cathartic spree for Bacon (and in discreet, well-edited moments, his double) that told a powerful story. A boy’s raging heart was being crushed by judgment — and in freeing his body he discovers the power to save himself. Watching it, we experience what the best of dancing can do to its onlookers: allow us to relive it in our own bodies. His feeling of release, of infinite possibility, becomes our own.

Sims’s choreography makes use of Wormald’s athletic fireworks — his whizzing spins and jumps propel him into a blur. He plunges into a pile of trash, he flings himself around like a whip. It’s a series of stunts; we’re watching a temper tantrum, not an epic journey.

By contrast, Bacon starts in hell and ends with an empowering image of flight. There didn’t need to be much more dancing than this in the film — that scene was like a shot of adrenaline, carrying us through to the end on its undying vicarious vibration.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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