Musicals are not created equal. They come in many shapes and sizes, one just as good as the next if done right. There are musicals that drop everything for long scenes of dance numbers that happen almost alternatively to the narrative. Then there are musicals that weave the numbers cohesively into the narrative as an organic force that drives the story forward. An argument can be made for both forms of musicals, as no doubt there are memorable examples of each. The common denominator, though, between any kind of successful musical is seemingly simple: the numbers themselves. Do the performances come off the screen with such bravura that you want to stand up and clap or do they fall flat in a way that’s bordering on embarrassing? Nevertheless, the musical performances need to be there, unabashedly in the flesh, and for the world to see. This basic element of musical cinema is precisely what escapes Footloose and ultimately does it in. There just isn’t enough dance.
A remake of a 1984 cult classic, Footloose begins in a small Southern town with a car crash that takes the lives of five high school seniors as they drive home from a high school dance. As a result, the town bans just about everything teenagers enjoy doing, including public dancing. Three years then pass, just in time for one of the deceased’s sisters and the daughter of the most powerful conservative in town, Ariel Moore (Julianna Hough), to begin rebelling by engaging in sweaty sexual relations with the town’s biggest beer-drinking and fast car driving baboon, Chuck. Simultaneously, waves from the more progressive North roll into town in the form of Ren MacCormack (Kenny Wormald), a smart aleck who happens to be a spectacular dancer and just won’t stand living in a town that won’t let him put on his moves. Of course Ariel (who also happens to be quite a dancer) and Ren fall for each other, leaving the town in a state of distress. Something has to give. The kids want to dance and the town won’t let them. That’s the basic dramatic arc of Footloose and it takes its drama very, very seriously.
What I wanted to see was spectacular choreography intertwining youthful bodies with a sexual, political repression and unique flare that so enveloped my mind when I thought of the original film. Instead, what this 2011 version offers is momentary glimpses at energetic dance that abruptly cut off to give way to many more minutes of poorly written melodrama and tenuous acting. Bless the souls of these young actors, especially Julianne Hough, as they aren’t ready to hold a film of this kind and the overt dialogue does nothing to help them along. Additionally, the plot is wrought with unearned drama that puts suspended disbelief to the test. The trailer purported a film that was going to be all cheese and all fun with lines like “I just want to dance!” What actually fills the film’s running time are highly serious moments such as the one where the “bad” boyfriend rises out of his otherwise cardboard cutout buffoonery to have a realistically emotional moment leading him to physical strike the girl he apparently loves. How can the filmmakers handle an enormous topic such as domestic violence with such naiveté? These scenes can be built well but if they aren’t careful they easily fall into a misogynistic control-fest. The filmmakers aren’t careful. Without a second paid to the character’s emotions beyond beer-drinking jealousy, the scene rings asinine. All drama , no substance. This particular scene may be the worst example of a common problem that strickens scenes throughout Footloose.
The final act pushes towards an all out dance romp that will finally explode all the repressed tension I suppose all the other abrupt dances were meant to achieve. Not that Footloose does it’s own marketing for such an ending but how else can it end? Dance has to happen at some point, right? What we get in the finale is a slow dance between the two newfound lovers and a lame duet between the two male characters, one of whom is the best part of the film but is a side character nonetheless. If nothing else, Director Craig Brewer could have at least let Julianne Hough have one solo if he was going give her so much flat writing. Sadly, little of her dynamic skill is ever on display. Hough may grow to regret this role because she has a good amount to offer as the innocent but wounded lead. Hough does the very best she can with the material she’s given.
Years ago, a professor told me, “you can measure the overall skill of a director by how he or she handles dance scenes.” If this is the barometer then Brewer fails miserably. Each scene is cut into fragments, often broken by cut-aways back to the generic narrative going on around the dance scene. This gives the impression of dances that are happening in the background as opposed to getting top billing. Musicals need to let their numbers have center stage for crucial scenes. These should help arouse the audience into a tizzy, hopefully keeping them unable to wait for the next one. Without the dance actually being highlighted, the viewer can’t help but assume the trite narrative is all the director really wants us to invest in. Furthermore, the images are framed from the chest up or the knees down, again avoiding showing the skill of the leads. If you didn’t know any better you might think the filmmakers were hiding something.
For all its misfires, Footloose does achieve a metaphorical look at an America currently as divided as ever. As a social commentary, Footloose comes very close to hitting on some topical points. Protests for progressivism rage throughout the country while simultaneously being compared to the diametrically opposite Tea Party Movement. One wants to reform the entire system and one wants a nation that goes back to its Christian roots. We live in a country stuck very much in the middle, people are crying for change with very different ideas as to how to bring it about. To use Footloose’s metaphor, would banning dance figuratively work to prevent more deaths of our youth, well, theoretically, Yes. But the filmmakers think solutions like these are only repressive stopgaps to continued problems inherent to us as humans. The ban on dance works to teach us that there are no easy solutions and all answers create more problems. Sadly, the storytellers have little purpose to stand up for their message beyond just asserting it.
Ultimately, Footloose is a missed opportunity. There’s a lot to work with here. You have great dancers, potentially affecting choreography, a compelling metaphor for social progression, and a director with a knack for making worlds grossly entertaining. Yet, the film doesn’t know what it wants to be and can’t survive the lack of decisiveness. Is it a stoic melodrama that uses dance only as a tool for the repression of it’s characters? If so, then why not build a more raw and compelling narrative arc? Or is it a camp musical that’s first order of business is to entertain? If that’s the case, then why not let your people dance their hearts out? I didn’t leave the theater satisfied that either approach had been successfully achieved. What I left asking was, “Where was all the dancing?” More importantly, “Why make a musical that hides its musical numbers?”