Update, Upgrade 

Memphis filmmaker Craig Brewer breathes life into a clunkier-than-you-remember "classic."

Diversity is one virtue of the new Footloose.

Diversity is one virtue of the new Footloose.

Let's be honest: The original Footloose, while a generational totem and "classic" to some, is no great shakes. The story of a sensitive, misunderstood new kid in town who combats bullies and uncomprehending authority figures while inspiring a sympathetic sidekick and not-so-good-girl love interest, the 1984 hit was ersatz Rebel Without a Cause, updated for an MTV age of Contemporary Hits Radio, shoddier mainstream craftsmanship, and we-gotta-have-a-montage.

Watch it today, with fresh eyes, and you'll see some iconic moments and good performances appended to plenty of draggy, clunky filmmaking.

Remaking Footloose for the iPod age is an inherently questionable proposition — "why?" is the first question that comes to mind — but if this was going to happen, it's hard to imagine a better man for the job than Memphis' Craig Brewer (see Cover Story, page 19), with his demonstrated facility with music-themed films and acknowledged love of '80s pop cinema.

Brewer's approach here is not to reboot or replace but to treat his new version as he would a theater revival — part update, part celebration.

In many ways, Brewer's version hews closely to the original: Ren McCormack (Kenny Wormald) relocates to tiny Bomont from big-city Boston (Chicago in the original) after some family upheaval. In Bomont, loud pop music and public dancing have been outlawed and a strict curfew imposed — though wearing Daisy Dukes on the first day of high school is a-okay. Ren butts heads with the locals, including the boyfriend (Patrick John Flueger) and minister father (Dennis Quaid) of red-booted, auburn-haired Ariel (Julianne Hough). Eventually, with the help of Ariel, good-ole-boy pal Willard (Miles Teller), and sassy fourth-wheel Rusty (Ziah Colon), Ren strikes a blow for freedom by organizing a prom-like party for the Bomont senior class.

Most of the identifiable markers from the original are respectfully preserved — the yellow VW bug, the red prom jacket, Kenny Loggins, Quiet Riot, and Denice Williams on a partially updated soundtrack. (I'd contend that Williams' buoyant "Let's Hear It for the Boy" is the most worthwhile thing associated with Footloose, and it's well-used here.) And most of the set-pieces are re-imagined in minor or significant ways — the "angry dance," the cowboy bar, the Bible-quoting town-council confrontation, the thankfully amped-up game of chicken, etc.

Brewer is probably correct in asserting that Footloose just isn't Footloose without these scenes or without a little cheese on the screen. But, in truth, this update stumbles when it pays too much respect to the original template, not when it departs from it.

The "angry dance," cued to a hard-hitting transition from Three 6 Mafia beat to White Stripes rave-up, has more coherent, charged musical accompaniment this time and is both more physical and somewhat less ridiculous: Brewer retains the original's Gymkata-worthy gymnastics moment but at least tones it down. But there's no way out when it comes time for Ren to starting quoting Ecclesiastes at the town meeting, and a wet T-shirt joke from the original should never have survived the journey.

Brewer breathes plenty of life into this rickety enterprise when he more fully injects his own directorial personality into the project. This starts with a change in setting, from the original generic Western town to a Georgia-specific Southern locale nailed in place with a good SEC joke, a fine supporting turn from Georgia native Ray McKinnon as Ren's now-supportive uncle, and a natural, unforced diversity that contrasts sharply with the original and stands as a convincing portrait of the young, modern South.

Footloose's diversity gets a boost from the film's most pleasant surprise, the previously unknown Colon, a Puerto Rican Atlanta native who fully inhabits the everygirl Rusty and makes a nice pair with the easygoing, show-stealing Teller. That Colon and Teller more than match the original's charming Sarah Jessica Parker/Chris Penn combo is a testament to Brewer's facility with actors, as are the better-than-anticipated lead performances of Hough and Wormald, professional dancers Brewer successfully shepherds into less familiar territory, much as he helped turn actors Terrence Howard and Samuel L. Jackson into convincing musicians in earlier films.

But the biggest difference between Brewer's Footloose and the original is a crucial shift in perspective. Brewer opens with a previously off-screen tragedy and repurposes the original's opening "our Lord is testing us" speech to underscore loss and fear as a town motivator. Cognizant of original fans now approaching the film as adults and parents — because he is as well — Brewer recalibrates the stakes from culture war — this Bomont may frown on public dancing, but they aren't trying to burn Vonnegut and get rid of video games too — to generational reconciliation. Quaid's town preacher is a less striking figure than John Lithgow's but is softer and more sympathetic from the beginning. And Ren's new family dynamic — a lost mother, more supportive family in Bomont — lends the character a different gravity. The character — if not the performance — is less callow and develops a more convincing bond with Quaid's Shaw over shared loss.

The rise in remakes, reboots, and reconfigurations over the past decade has resulted mostly in forgettable cheapies (Fame, Straw Dogs, pick your horror remake) and dumbed-down, high-profile duds (The Longest Yard, The Heartbreak Kid, The Stepford Wives). When there's an exception, it's usually the result of filmmakers who have developed a personal style able to cut through received material. And that's the case here. Most remakes of this kind aren't made with the care and craft and idiosyncrasy Brewer brings to his Footloose.

This film may not have much reason to exist beyond the fact that a studio decided to finance it, but it's probably as enjoyable and accomplished as it could possibly be. It's not only more distinctive, energetic filmmaking than the overrated original, it also has more humor and warmth. There's palpable joy on the screen. If nothing else, it's a reminder of how skilled a filmmaker Brewer is. Here's hoping it launches him back into more interesting material.

Footloose
Opening Friday, October 14th
Multiple locations

Footloose
Rated PG-13 · 113 min. · 2011
Official Site: www.footloosemovie.com
Director: Craig Brewer
Writer: Craig Brewer
Producer: Craig Zadan, Neil Meron, Brad Weston and Dylan Sellers
Cast: Kenny Wormald, Julianne Hough, Dennis Quaid and Miles Teller

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