Footloose (1984) and Footloose (2011)
Choreographer (1984): Lynne Taylor-Corbett
Choreographer (2011): Jamal Sims
Footloose, in whatever version you watch it, is a fairly basic story. A young boy named Ren McCormack, fish-out-of-water if there ever was one, moves from the city to live with relatives in the country. The town he finds himself in, however, has banned dancing. What at first seems a religious intolerance is later revealed to be a fear of pain – the town lost several high-schoolers years before as they drove home drunk from a dance. A dance ban wasn’t the only reaction, but a curfew and ban on loud music were also instituted. In true 80s fasion, it’s up to Ren to bring dance and joy back into the town.
Most of the town isn’t on board with this idea. After he’s been given enough trouble by townies, police, and the local boys who (correctly) think he’s trying to hone in on one of their girls, Ren drives to an abandoned warehouse and releases his anger in an extended solo dance. The 1984 scene is famous, in large part because it helped launch Kevin Bacon’s career. The 2011 version was successful, but had no Kevin Bacon.
In the remake, director Craig Brewer asks choreographer Jamal Sims to replace the jazz choreography and gymnastics of the 1984 version with aggression. In the original, Ren’s act of dancing is a release, an escapist fantasy that allows Ren to take control of his reality once more. Bacon and his dance double Michael Telmont perform multiple jump kicks, slide down the hand rails of a flight of stairs, and swing on a chain from the rafters like Errol Flynn. Though Ren’s fighting personal demons, he’s clearly beating them. The choreography communicates re-assertion, a reclaiming of mental territory. The song is even triumphal, a high-speed 80s ballad with lyrics like “Never ever hide your heart,” and “It’s time to fight.”
When Kenny Wormald and his dance double perform the 2011 version, there is no less athleticism, but the gymnastics are replaced with a hip hop/contemporary choreography edited to The White Stripes’ relentlessly syncopated, storm-in-a-teapot “Catch Hell Blues,” which opens “Well if they catch me around/ You’re playing rock the boat/ I’m gonna catch hell.” The message is wholly different. Brewer and Sims repeatedly have Wormald spin out and lose control, or overstep edges and come crashing down. When he swings from the rafters, he doesn’t elegantly flip and land like Bacon. He’s yanked back and forth until he tumbles to the ground.
The remake’s dance solo isn’t a form of re-assertion through escapism; it’s a form of losing even more control through frustration. There is release, but the release here isn’t the key to a 1980s movie moment that gives you the confidence to win. The release here is that of ceasing to care if you lose. It’s a key difference in the two films and the two eras in which they were made.
The 1980s in the United States were defined by Reaganism and fire sales of the American dream. Realistic or not, everyone believed they could pull themselves up by their bootstraps. American movies were dominated by people succeeding in this American dream – even action movies like the Rocky sequels and Die Hard were about average joes overcoming insurmountable odds thanks to their sheer, American, wisecracking toughness. Director Herbert Ross would go on to direct Michael J. Fox in The Secret of My Succe$s, a solid comedy that nonetheless posits that if everyone was out for themselves, they’d end up with the girl of their dreams and be CEO of their own company.
Brewer’s story is darker. He came to his dream project, Footloose, after an allegorical drama about abuse, addiction, and recovery in the underrated and misunderstood Black Snake Moan. Wormald’s Ren is scarred by his mother’s death, a new character detail Bacon’s Ren never had to suffer. Wormald’s Ren is less self-sufficient, and what were amusing plot obstacles from local villains for Bacon are now turned into out-and-out bullying and social ostracizing for Wormald. There’s even a scene in the 2011 version in which the love interest, Ariel (Julianne Hough) is so afraid her townie boyfriend will dump her, she is pressured into having sex with him. Brewer’s is a story that acknowledges a reality to which the original Footloose didn’t have access.
It’s also a film made directly after the subprime mortgage crisis that launched the United States into a borderline financial depression. Ren isn’t just more frustrated, he lives in a world that’s been screwed over. Where the original Ren comes to control and dominate his environment through the warehouse solo, the remake’s Ren comes to learn he is trapped by his surroundings. He bounces off them. He makes no difference.
The rules Kevin Bacon’s Ren sets out to break in 1984 symbolized censorship and old-fashioned thinking standing in the way of social progress. Kenny Wormald’s Ren sets out to break those same rules because he sees his world for the first time as one split between those who follow the rules, and those in charge who don’t have to. The 1984 film was about the dawn of progress, a promising future, and new ways of thinking. The 2011 film is about struggling to stay above water and living restricted, fearful, cautious lives because of trauma.
In 1984, the reverend, Ariel’s father, who socially enforces these rules is simply doing what he understands to be God’s work. The reverend in 2011 acts from a more wounded place, from his own fear. He is certain that any deviation from the rules will curse him to repeat a moment of terror and loss that happened years before. Sound like a familiar tune?
Neither Footloose is a triumph of cinema. They’re both fun but fairly average movies wearing their allegories firmly on their sleeves. They aren’t complex, but they do both exist to communicate important themes. It’s easy to talk about the momentous films that challenge and confront our pre-existing notions and beliefs. It’s just as easy to overlook the intelligent and challenging moments in films that are otherwise unspectacular. The differing choreographic approaches between the original Footloose and its remake won’t likely change the face of cinema, but they’re important to notice and discuss because, after all, someone who sees them today is going to change the face of cinema tomorrow.