During the 1980s, American pop culture was going through an awkward stage thanks to new technology and an exploding music video esthetic. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 ushered in a new era of patriotism / arrogance (pick one) that America hadn’t exuded since the 1950s. Hollywood (now fully driven by the blockbuster mentality) drew on all of these elements, imbuing films with an over-the-top look and feel that’s made many of them painful to watch, some harmlessly amusing and a precious few cherished time capsules.
We’ve put together ten double features of quintessential ‘80s flicks. These aren’t the BEST films of the decade or the worst… okay a few of them are among the worst. But they all sum up different aspects of that time when Members Only jackets, Joe Camel, Cabbage Patch Dolls and Michael Jackson were considered acceptable.
To many teenagers in the ‘80s, John Hughes’ films became gospel set to New Wave soundtracks. “The Breakfast Club” remains the standard bearer for teen-ensembles, in which a disparate group of high school archetypes (we don’t need to list them, do we?) spend an afternoon together in detention and come to realize that they’re not so different after all. But the message becomes muddled when gloomy, Cap’n Crunch & Sugar sandwich-munchin’ Allison (Ally Sheedy) is made over into a bland, preppy princess at the end. What about that much-vaunted individualism? It’s quashed even more in “Pretty in Pink” (directed by Howard Deutch), where the endearingly dorky Duckie (Jon Cryer), is the much better match for vintage clothes-wearing record store clerk Andie (Hughes muse Molly Ringwald) than the wealthy preppie Blane (Andrew McCarthyzzzzzzzz). The fact that the original script put Duckie with Andie is irrelevant. Onscreen, she ends up with bland Blane, sending a horrible message that, as in many of Hughes’ films, even the most idiosyncratic individualist (including Annie Potts’ Iona) longs to be a part of the mainstream.
Breakin’ (1984) / Beat Street (1984)
How fitting that the first major films to depict hip hop culture were set in Los Angeles and New York, creating the first east-vs-west rap battle in terms of which film you like better. “Breakin’” stars Lucinda Dickey as Kelly, a Los Angeles jazz dancer who discovers breakdancing and rap and integrates it into her art, becoming a (ahem) breakout sensation. The movie features the screen debut of Ice-T and spawned a quickie sequel with the unforgettable suffix: “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.” “Beat Street” is a far grittier film, set in the Bronx, where a DJ/rapper, a graffiti artist and wannabe mogul dream of making it out of the ghetto. Cameos by Grand Master Melle Mel and the Furious 5, Afrika Bambaataa, the Rock Steady Crew and more give the movie some street cred, slightly lessened by the rampant Puma product placement.
Which “Rocky” film better sums up the ‘80s? “IV,” in which the Italian Stallion (Sylvester Stallone) fights Russian boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) to avenge the death of Apollo Creed in the ring is a testosterone-laden metaphor for the impending end of the Soviet Union. But “III” pits Rock’ against two of the decade’s most iconic figures, the fool-pitying Mr. T in the part of Clubber Lang and Hulk Hogan as the wrestler Thunderlips, as well as featuring Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” as its pumpin’ anthem. Then again, “IV” features a wad of awful ‘‘80s rock by John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band, Kenny Loggins, Europe and Go West (altho’ they’re mitigated by James Brown’s awesome “Living in America.”). Afraid it’s a split decision.
7) Tron (1982) / WarGames (1983)
While Disney’s “Tron” (in which a computer game designer becomes a digital gladiator) was the first film to extensively make use of computer graphics, few realize how much of the film’s distinctive look was actually accomplished by traditional animation methods. Still, the use of a computer to aid in the effects eliminated the movie from consideration for an Academy Award because it was “cheating.” Another flick tackling nascent computer technology was “WarGames,” in which Matthew Broderick THINKS he’s playing a computer game, but has in fact hacked into NORAD’s computers and is about to start World War III by actually launching missiles at Russia. Watching these today, you’ll pay less attention to the story than to the now-hilariously antiquated computers (wait, does that one have a crank?).
Alex Owens (Jennifer Beals) is a welder by day, exotic dancer by night who only dreams of joining the Pittsburgh Conservatory of Dance. It’s a Cinderella story that’s as wafer thin as Beals’ acting and dancing ability (the heavily edited dance routines were in fact performed by as many as four people), and the fact that the movie is known primarily for a cut-up sweatshirt is fitting. Or ill-fitting. Whatever. Meanwhile, a buff, oiled-up, headband-sporting John Travolta reprised his role of Tony Manero (now a struggling Broadway dancer) in “Staying Alive,” a sequel to “Saturday Night Fever” written and directed by Sylvester Stallone. The movie is as shiny and overblown as its predecessor was gritty and believable, a perfect metaphor for ‘80s films compared to ‘70s.
5) Purple Rain (1984) / Xanadu (1980)
“Purple Rain” is the ultimate music video movie, a star vehicle for Prince in which the plot is so superfluous it doesn’t matter how ridiculous it is. All that matters is that the Purple One gets to strut, ride a motorcycle, fool around with Appolonia, dress like a pirate and perform a bunch of songs. What more do you need? The Olivia Newton John / Gene Kelly pop fairy tale, “Xanadu” hasn’t aged as well, primarily due to some elements that were dated even then and the fact that few people can spell “Terpsichore.” And yet, a Broadway adaptation is scheduled to begin next month, proving that there are fans of everything.
Widely considered the best worst movie ever made, “Road House,” with its cartoon character stereotypes, a muscled, mulleted Patrick Swayze, monster trucks, Jeff Healey and neon-zen-philosophizing, could only have been made in the ‘80s. Dalton, the ultimate bar bouncer may opine that “pain don’t hurt,” but your sides will ache after watching this cheesy chunk of machismo. In “Cocktail,” Tom Cruise plays one of his patented cocky ballcap grinners, an ex-GI / business school student / bartender who dreams of opening his own place called (seriously) Cocktails and Dreams. The movie is in its own way every bit as ridiculous as “Road House,” and is singularly to blame if you’ve ever had to put up with some jerky bartender exhibiting his shaker-tossing “flair” instead of just making your drink.
Wall Street (1987) / Risky Business (1983)
In the end, it didn’t matter that co-writer / director Oliver Stone meant “Wall Street” to be an indictment of that world’s money-grubbing moral vacuum. Tons of wannabe-yuppies only saw the trappings of wealth, slicking back their hair and embracing the mantra of Michael Douglas’ ruthless trader Gordon Gekko: “Greed is Good.” Another, unprintable slogan is at the heart of “Risky Business,” the story of how Joel Goodson (Tom Cruise again) goes from a timid, horny average nobody to a self-assured entrepreneur with a hot hooker girlfriend and an admission to Princeton. Both films are about wanting things beyond reach and the moral ambiguity surrounding the means to the ends. Oh, and suspenders and Ray-Bans.
Of the quadjillion teen comedies of the ‘80s, none better sum up that era than “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” which crosses all cliques to present a look at teenagers that’s both funnier and uglier (hence more believable) than any John Hughes film. It’s a perfect time capsule that holds up so well due primarily to Cameron Crowe’s knowing screenplay. Crowe also penned and directed 1989’s “Say Anything,” starring John Cusack as everyman Lloyd Dobler, a nice guy who likes kickboxing and the Replacements and views high school graduation as his final shot at asking out the beautiful valedictorian Diane Court (Ione Skye). “Say Anything” has become a classic primarily because it eschews the usual teen stereotypes in favor of complex characters. There’s no simple jock or brain or rebel… everyone has layers to his or her personality that sometimes seem contradictory, but always feel right. A hopeful, yet ambiguous ending adds to the poignancy of perhaps the best ‘80s teen film.
Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) / Top Gun (1986)
“Rambo,” Sylvester Stallone’s first sequel to 1982’s “First Blood” dumps that film’s social commentary on the treatment of Vietnam vets in favor of a straight action film that finds the “pure fighting machine” single-handedly re-fighting the first war that America lost. There’s no moral ambiguity, no shades of gray, it’s Reagan’s right America vs. both those Godless commies and lily-livered liberals destroying our values. “Top Gun” has the same values, but under a sugary coating of romance for the ladies (and some men) and buddy action, set to a fist-pumpin’ soundtrack. If the characters in these films had worn neon spandex and purple mohawks, they would’ve been the perfect summation of the 1980s.
No doubt we left off some of your favorite ‘80s flicks (by the way, slasher films are something to which very few of us can actually RELATE, hence their absence). Honorable mention should go to the Cyndi Lauper vehicle, “Vibes,” the BMX love story, “Rad,” the awesome yet unsuper “Flash Gordon,” the Coreys’ “Dream a Little Dream” and Sly Stallone’s arm-wrestling movie, “Over the Top,” for which Sly is NOT developing a sequel… yet. But with the current mania for all things ‘80s, it’s only a matter of time.
ORIGINALLY POSTED in REWIND on MTV.COM, April 2007