That said, we're past the halfway mark now. Only two weeks to go and much ground still to cover. For this week's lessons, we're going after some heavy subject matter. We're going examine the 1980s high school experience, look hard at racial tensions of the era, and navigate a maze to save an adorable, fat baby. Strap on your codpiece and bust out your boombox, it's time to understand our differences over a Saturday afternoon's worth of witty repartee.
The High School Stereotypes Who Bonded Over Simple Minds
The Breakfast Club (1985)This might seem like an overly obvious choice, but of all of John Hughes' filmography, no film so quintessentially sums up the '80s high school experience every kid wanted quite like The Breakfast Club. Hughes' thing was always about taking high school archetypes and turning them into the quick-witted, adult-minded kids everyone wished they were. The kinds of kids who could find ways to express every stressful, painful, awful thing on their mind with just the right one-liner or comeback The Breakfast Club is the ultimate realization of that idea, with five perfectly archetypal kids--the jock, the basket case, the princess, the nerd, and the punk--played by five perfectly archetypal '80s actors-- Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy and Anthony Michael Hall--all cooped up in a detention room on a Saturday, forced to face each other's differences head on.
It's a timeless story that just happens to use perfect '80s stereotypes, perfect '80s fashion, a goddamn dance montage, and the undisputed champion among all '80s theme songs (Simple Minds' "Dont You Forget About Me") to get the job done. You could make equal arguments for whether this or Ferris Bueller is Hughes' greatest work, but I think Breakfast Club is far more about the high school experience of the '80s, and features the ultimate high school ensemble.
- Heathers (1989) - Part '80s high school clique comedy, part serial killer film, Heathers is kind of the anti-Hughes movie, and it's amazing. Gives you a necessary dose of Christian Slater, Winona Ryder and early Shannen Doherty, as well. Hard to argue with scenes like this.
- Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) - Sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, Judge Reinhold, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sean Penn as Spicoli, and Phoebe Cates in the iconic topless scene of the '80s. (Oh hey, that last clip? Fully not safe for work.) I mean, hell, it's the only reason you remember "Moving In Stereo" by The Cars, right?
- Red Dawn (1984) - Okay, so this isn't exactly a high school experience anyone really had in the '80s, but it's hard to ignore a movie in which a group of '80s high schoolers take on and defeat an invasion by commie bastards. Swayze, Sheen, Lea Thompson, Jennifer Grey and the Soul Man himself, C. Thomas Howell, with machine guns, fighting communists. Yeah. The movie itself is sorta tough to watch in this day and age, but as red threat paranoia films go, few so perfectly sum up the mood and attitude of the country at the time as this one. Wolverines!
The Hot Day in Brooklyn That Boiled Over Into the Streets
Do The Right Thing (1989)Spike Lee's '89 classic is as much a love letter to the culture of New York in the late '80s as it is a careful examination of the racial tensions surrounding that culture. Set in Brooklyn during the hottest day of summer, the film documents the growing rage between the black residents of the neighborhood, and the Italians that run a local pizza joint, which eventually spill over into an all-out riot toward the end. Race relations is something only a handful of '80s films managed to tackle with much effectiveness, and Do The Right Thing brought with it a mass of controversy when it was released, with some critics fearing it would incite African Americans to riot after seeing it. Obviously that didn't happen, but the intensity of the film is undeniable. It's even been given a spot inside the U.S. Library of Congress, due to its cultural relevance.
That said, Do the Right Thing still feels very much of its time. It's one of the best and most fascinating encapsulations of black culture at the end of the '80s--a culture that saw very little screen time outside of the works of Eddie Murphy and random dance films throughout much of the decade. The movie is chock full of amazing characters, of which the most significant might be the iconic Radio Raheem, whose perpetual boom box usage and unchecked rage drive much of the film forward. Elsewhere, you have early performances from the likes of Samuel L. Jackson, Martin Lawrence and Rosie Perez--Perez's opening credits dance sequence, in particular, is like a Puerto Rican punch to the skull, late '80s style. It also proved a watershed moment for rap group Public Enemy, whose track "Fight the Power" became an anthem thanks to its frequent use in the movie.
- Krush Groove (1985) - A semi-fictional musical based on the formation of Def Jam Records. It features an insane collection of '80s rap and R&B acts, including Run D.M.C., New Edition, L.L. Cool J, the Fat Boys, the Beastie Boys, and Sheila E., and is a rare, early look at the hip-hop culture of the era.
- Eddie Murphy Raw (1987) - The defining stand-up comedy film of the 1980s. Murphy's material is extremely era-specific (as most stand-up movies tend to be), yet still incredibly poignant and hilarious today. It also contains the most uses of the word "fuck" in any film of the '80s. So that's awesome.
- Action Jackson (1988) - Much as the '80s lacked a great number of definitive black filmmakers, it also lacked much in the way of definitive black action heroes. Thankfully, there was at least Carl Weathers as Jericho "Action" Jackson. A Detroit cop busted down for violence against a suspect? Check. Craig T. Nelson as a violent, heroin-dealing, union busting auto executive? Check. Bill Duke as a predictably cranky police captain? Check. Former Prince protege Vanity as a heroin-addicted mistress/love interest? Check. Throw in some seriously '80s action, and you've got yourself a perfectly decade-specific movie!
The Rock Star Goblin Who Taught a Troubled Child a Lesson
Labyrinth (1986)It's really a shame we didn't get more out of Jim Henson before his death in 1990. His production company obviously brought us some of the best kids entertainment of the '70s and '80s, but as a director, he only gave us precious few original projects that didn't involve Muppets adventuring or Fraggles rocking. Labyrinth is one of the rare fantasy films he chose to write and direct, and it's a fantastic example of the kind of fantasy many children's films of the era delved into. It's a story of a girl (played by a very young Jennifer Connelly) who accidentally wishes her younger brother away into the hands of an evil goblin king--one played by a very chesty, spiky-haired, and crotch-thrusty David Bowie--who must navigate a labyrinth full of crazy creatures of Henson and company's design. A great deal of '80s fantasy flicks featured kids who found themselves tortured or depressed by familial troubles. Here, Connelly is irritated with her family dynamic; specifically, her step-mother and baby half-brother. Over the course of the film, she learns to appreciate the things, including (and especially) her family, that she took for granted.
The film's whole aesthetic is unmistakably '80s. Bowie looks like he's about to ride horseback into a Kajagoogoo concert (and, yes, he sings, and dances), the worlds are filled with trippy, dreamlike imagery, and the creature designs include both typical Henson-brand puppetry and big, honking man-in-suit creations that are as grotesque as they are memorable. The film was billed as also being "from the mind of" George Lucas, though he's only credited as an executive producer. Ultimately, it is a film that feels entirely of Henson's creation, and it stands as one of the greats of children's fantasy filmmaking of the era.
- The NeverEnding Story (1984) - Here is one of the all-time weird kids movies. A bullied boy dives into a magical storybook and experiences the fantastical world of Fantasia through the adventures of a young warrior named Atreyu, his trusty luckdragon named Falkor, and a childlike empress called, well, the Childlike Empress. The film's whole aesthetic is deeply rooted in the kind of sparkly, creature-filled fantasy that so many films of the decade employed, not to mention the requisite technopop soundtrack and epic theme song. And, of course, we have our sullen, bullied young boy who escapes into fantasy when the real world beats him down.
- Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985) - Pee-wee Herman is the very definition of great children's entertainment from the 1980s. Herman's man-child persona provided hours of Saturday morning entertainment while honestly teaching a thing or two to the kids of the era. Big Adventure, which actually pre-dates the TV show, also happens to be then-burgeoning weirdo director Tim Burton's first major project. It's a fantastic prelude to one of the great kids shows of the decade--one that undoubtedly spawned many loner rebels along the way.
- Transformers: The Movie (1986) - Here is the converse to Herman. Children's cartoons of the 1980s were largely hollow efforts of pure, crass commercialism that lacked redeeming value once you grew too old to buy action figures. Transformers was certainly among of them, though the show had its moments of inexplicable creativity. The movie? Well, it holds up better than it probably has any right to, due in no small part to its insane voice cast (featuring such WTF names as Leonard Nimoy, Eric Idle, and Orson Welles) and darker overall tone than the show's typically breezy vibe. Still, it's hard not to look back at it as the 90-minute toy commercial it actually was. In that regard, it's the perfect representation of the era's cartoon culture. Great soundtrack, though!
That's gonna do it for another week. Next Sunday, we'll have ourselves a little low-key, life-affirming science fiction, get a little lovey-dovey with some of the era's great on-screen romances, and then murder the living shit out of some horny teenagers using bizarre practical special effects.
And remember, "Always do the right thing."