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Why Are Movies Like “Footloose” Remade — and Why Do We Keep Watching Them?

When you step back and take a breath, you realize not much has changed in pop culture since the ’70s and ’80s. It’s all just slicker and in HD.

Take movie remakes. The Three Musketeers was just released; Dirty Dancing, Total Recall and The Warriors are in development; Superman is being reborn, again; and Footloose, that completely manufactured story about a big-city boy with a manufactured name who comes to shake up an American town that doesn’t exist, has been foisted upon us once again. It may or may not be as big a blockbuster as the original, but that doesn’t matter. The originals may be from another decade, but remakes are very 2011.

I remember the first time Footloose came around.

I was 14 and had not been fully demoralized by our celebrity industrial complex. Still, I remember seeing the tie-in videos on MTV for Kenny Loggins’s Footloose theme song, as well as the hit “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” and thinking, “Why are these songs in my head? I don’t want them there!” 

I was not yet political, but still the film seemed calculated. “We need a movie about rebellion, but with characters who all voted for Reagan!” the film’s creators seemed to be saying. And that was why it worked. The original Footloose captured that Playmobil version of Americana that had solidified in the ’80s, that alternative reality where there was no AIDS and no complicated relationship with Iran, but the country needed to feel conflict in some easy-to-swallow way. The premise that there could be a town in America that bans dancing was hard to swallow back then, but somehow we all swallowed it. These days it’s ridiculous. That town would have a reality show and hashtag #nodanceville.

There is some relevance to the release of this movie. There are still bullies in our high schools, and lots of state and local leaders (not to mention presidential campaigners) who claim they have American values and want to deny equal rights to certain citizens. We know who these citizens are. In this film, they are all straight, mostly white, and really good-looking.

They did choose good actors for the 2011 version. Playing Ren MacCormack (the Kevin Bacon role), Kenny Wormald is a modelicious chiseled guy on the James Dean <—> James Franco continuum, exuding that hairless petulance that we all love in our young leading men. And Julianne
Hough, playing the love interest (originated by the weirdly stony but magnetic Lori Singer) is a gorgeous actress with a long career ahead of her (as long as people keep her away from Leo). In her tattered shorty shorts and sexy tops and long chestnut hair, she looks to be outfitted perfectly for this film, since young women are enjoying a kind of
country sex-kitten trend right now — wearing tiny jeans cutoffs and fitted plaid tops and sporting tousled Ke$ha ‘dos as if they use vaseline as a hair emulsifier.

Some remakes try to mine the original for ironic comedy, like the The Stepford Wives. Some, like the remake of Fame, try to shoehorn a completely different style of youth culture into the original script as if all generations are interchangeable. Some are attempts at a kind of celebrity knighthood, like The Three Musketeers, in which the boy-man actor of the 00’s, Orlando Bloom (who wears poet sleeves and tights in almost every film), introduces Logan Lerman, the potential boy-man actor of the 10s. Some justify themselves by going back to the  book that the original movie was based on (as producers of the new Total Recall or the much-buzzed remake of The Wizard of Oz have announced). Among these attempts, there may be a good film, or at least some entertaining CGI. But it remains challenging for a remake to exude any kind of relevance to our lives here and now. 

Who knows, maybe Footloose will, intentionally or not, capture the constant pressure that today’s deliriously overmarketed youth must feel. I should reserve my
full judgment until I watch it on DVD this winter with my friends for a
hoot.

So far, Footloose isn’t enjoying breakout success in the box office, but that may not matter. That’s another big difference. Certainly there was a budding video market in 1984, when the original appeared, but there wasn’t streaming video, iPads, DVR, or on-demand access on the back of airline seats. In 2011, our entertainment comes to us on searchable menus like we are ordering sushi a la carte. Like so many remakes, Footloose, for good or bad, will be attached to the original like a barnacle. From a marketing standpoint it’s a smart move: Glom onto a cultural tentpole and you will have at least 30,000 people a week clicking on your movie  or accidentally Netflixing it. In our scrolldown existence, the bits that float to the top of the page are the most important. They may stultify originality, but from a business standpoint, remakes make sense.

In that way, the new Footloose is very much a reflection of our current culture, an example of the pop byproduct that we keep eating, digesting, and regurgitating year after year in a constant cycle. Sounds like The Human Centipede.

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