When Kenny Wormald was a kid growing up in Boston, 1984’s Footloose was a personal favorite — partly because it was good for his social life. ”I used to get made fun of for dancing,” says the 27-year-old actor, who’s been studying dance since he was 6. ”So when I saw things like Footloose, I’d say, ‘Look. It’s cool, you guys. Stop making fun of me. Kevin Bacon is cool.”’ Now the budding star, best known for the 2007 MTV reality series Dancelife, has his own chance to be cool, taking on Bacon’s character Ren McCormack in Paramount’s PG-13 remake, opening Oct. 14.
The original film, which starred Bacon, Lori Singer, Sarah Jessica Parker, and the late Chris Penn as teens defying a small town’s no-dancing ordinance, was a pop culture phenomenon, grossing $80 million at the box office. Even more notable was its blockbuster soundtrack, including Kenny Loggins’ title track and Deniece Williams’ ”Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” which went on to sell 9 million copies.
Given the original movie’s enduring popularity, fans might wonder why it should be remade at all. ”Why shouldn’t it?” counters Paramount production head Adam Goodman. ”There are certain films that have no business being remade, and then there’s a movie like this.” Adds Neil Meron, who’s producing with Craig Zadan (Hairspray, Chicago), ”It’s only worth doing if there is a new way of looking at it.” Under the direction of Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow), Meron says, ”it doesn’t really feel like he is trampling on hallowed ground.” To make the ban on dancing seem more realistic, the director opened with a car crash that kills five local teens and makes the town paranoid about high school partying. ”This is really about a small town in America who deeply love their children,” says Brewer.
Despite the producers’ enthusiasm, getting Footloose off the ground wasn’t easy. In October 2008 High School Musical star Zac Efron and director Kenny Ortega both signed on to the project. Ortega envisioned a full-fledged big-screen musical with Ren and his pals singing on screen. ”That [version] was going to be much more, shall we say, Glee-like,” says Zadan. Then Efron dropped out in March 2009 and Gossip Girl‘s Chace Crawford briefly stepped in. By October Ortega had walked away shortly after wrapping the Michael Jackson concert film This Is It. Goodman decided to take the project in a different direction. ”That version had its merits and was coming out of a string of these dance movies and High School Musical kinds of films,” he says. ”[But] to me, that’s not really what Footloose was about.” So Goodman turned to Brewer, who had directed Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan for the studio, hoping to give the material a little more edge. It helped that Brewer delivered what Goodman calls ”the single best pitch” he’d ever heard. As Brewer recalls, ”I came in and I pitched my whole take with a boom box. I played them the songs I wanted to keep. I pitched that we’re only going to change a couple of things and give more gravity to what this is about. You’re going to disappoint people if you don’t treat it as the revival of a play.”
Finding the new Ren posed its own challenge. Then a superstar named Justin Timberlake recommended Wormald, a backup dancer on his 2007 concert tour. Wormald, whose biggest acting credit was the straight-to-DVD Center Stage: Turn It Up, didn’t even get to show off his steps until a later callback. When he finally danced in front of the producers, he says, ”I saw a little switch happen in everyone’s eyes.”
As for Ren’s love interest, the promiscuous preacher’s daughter Ariel (originally played by Singer), Julianne Hough had been attached when Ortega was still on board. But Brewer wasn’t convinced the Dancing With the Stars vet and Burlesque costar could tackle his more dramatic script (he shares screenwriting credit with original scribe Dean Pitchford). ”I had to win my role over again,” admits Hough. ”Once I read the script, I was like, ‘This is what I need.’ People know I can do the dancing thing and sing. I need to show them that I can act.”
In the reboot, Ren moves from Boston to fictional Bomont, Tenn., to live with his aunt and uncle after his mother dies. He falls for Ariel, helps pal Willard (Rabbit Hole‘s Miles Teller) learn to dance, and fights to overturn the ban on dancing. Willard still headlines a montage set to ”Let’s Hear It for the Boy,’ and Ren has his ”angry dance” in an abandoned warehouse. ”It was absolutely surreal,” says Wormald of shooting the acrobatic number. ”That and [wearing] the maroon jacket were like, ‘Holy s—. We’re shooting Footloose.”’
Brewer took a few more liberties with the film’s music. ”I have some people who say, ‘Oh, look, he’s made Footloose gangsta,’ just because they see the trailer and there might be one hip-hop song,” he says. ”Then they see the movie and they say, ‘Oh, he’s gone country with it.”’ For the record, there are tunes by country stars Blake Shelton (on the title track) and the Zac Brown Band, but others from such groups as the White Stripes and Three 6 Mafia.
No matter what, Brewer considers his film an homage to the ’80s classic. ”There are a lot of teenagers who have seen my movie, and the first thing they say is ‘I’m going to watch the original now.’ Many will be seeing it for the first time,” he says. And almost certainly not for the last.