Craig Brewer is the director of the "Footloose" remake. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)
Craig Brewer is a director who gravitates to stories about the underbelly of society — pimps, hookers and nymphomaniacs were the protagonists in his first two films, the award-winning "Hustle and Flow" and his Christina Ricci, Samuel L. Jackson-starrer "Black Snake Moan." But on a sunny March afternoon, Brewer was sitting in an edit bay on the Paramount Pictures lot, fretting over the first 20 minutes of his new, much more wholesome movie he'd just showed to a reporter.
"If I mess up 'Footloose,' I'm not sure how I can live the rest of my life knowing that," Brewer said of his remake of the 1984 classic starring Kevin Bacon about a city boy who comes to a small town and discovers that dancing has been banned. "A lot of people don't realize just how important 'Footloose' was to me as a 13-year-old."
As the son of two progressive hippies who were constantly trying to escape their Southern roots, Brewer moved often as a kid, leaving his family's small town outside Memphis, Tenn., for Virginia, then Chicago and eventually a suburb of Oakland. The filmmaker, now 39, said he related to the fish-out-of-water tale written by Dean Pitchford. "I was a chubby kid that couldn't play sports. I always felt like an outsider at home. When I saw 'Footloose,' I thought, 'This is the fantasy of what I feel like.'"
Brewer's reverence for the material took this remake — which had many erratic starts and stops over the last eight years — back to its roots. In an age of movie redos (where a new version of "The Karate Kid" was set in China and an "Arthur" update cast Helen Mirren in the role of the butler), Paramount, somewhat surprisingly, allowed Brewer to remain faithful to the original.
"The biggest risk we take with this film is taking it seriously," said Brewer. "It's easy to maybe do a spoof or a comedic sendup of it, but we treated 'Footloose' very seriously. That was a considerable risk."
The new film, which is rated PG-13 and opens Friday, hews closely to the original, complete with the iconic "Let's Hear It for the Boy" how-to dance scene featuring the original song by Deniece Williams and the warehouse scene where Bacon's character, Ren McCormack (now played by Kenny Wormald), unleashes his frustrations in a barren scrap yard.
Brewer, who wrote the update, also stuck to original director Herb Ross' playbook by casting relative unknowns as leads. He chose fresh-faced Bostonian Wormald and "Dancing With the Stars" alumna Julianne Hough as Ariel Moore, a preacher's promiscuous daughter who rebels against her mournful father, who has lost his son in a car crash.
Even Brewer, a self-proclaimed "Footloose"-ologist, was surprised at how relevant the themes of the original —loneliness, acceptance, struggles with faith — were today. It forced him, he said, to reconsider his negative ideas about remakes.
"What was the last teen movie where you saw a character dealing with their own demons and soul like Ariel does? That's not me, that's Dean Pitchford. That's 'Footloose,'" said Brewer. "I think 'Footloose' is just as important as 'Romeo and Juliet'. It's a rite of passage. At some point, every 13-year-old has to see 'Footloose' to say, 'Oh, my God, that's what I'm going to have to deal with in high school.'"
Brewer did make some updates to the original, which earned more than $80 million when it premiered in February 1984. He backed the story up three years to show the car crash that prompted the town to ban dancing, and he made his protagonist an orphan, rather than the son of a single mother who no longer had the means to care for her child.
"Craig really fleshed out the family connections and community connections that I had not thought of," said Pitchford, who specifically responded to Brewer's decision to have Ren's mother die. "He really cleared the deck, so there is no choice but for Ren to come and spend his senior year with his relatives."
And Brewer, who's known for infusing his films with edgy, interesting music such as Three 6 Mafia's "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," which won the Academy Award for original song in 2006, updated the soundtrack with new renditions of such classics from the original film as Kenny Loggins' "Footloose," now from country music artist Blake Shelton, and rapper David Banner doing his version of Shalamar's "Dancing in the Sheets," called "Dance the Night Away."
Though Pitchford said he never set out to write "an indictment of religion," Brewer toned down some of the dogmatic preaching, which he found too fear-based for the direction he took the film. With the encouragement of Dennis Quaid, who plays the preacher in the 2011 version, the filmmaker altered one of the sermons from the original that seemed too "fire and brimstone," according to Brewer, to the more hopeful mustard-seed story from Matthew.