Christopher Lloyd, Michael J. Fox and the DeLorean in Back to the Future, which apparently has become a classic. Below: Tom Cruise in Top Gun, which reflected a positive attitude toward the military in the 1980s.
Tomorrow: Some Kentuckians with film and/or 80s connections weigh in on their 80s favorites.
It’s fun to have a chance to see a favorite film from our teens at The Kentucky Theatre this week, but it’s also a little jarring for us thirty- and forty-somethings to see our high school years now labeled as “classic.”
But those are the terms under which The Kentucky is showing Back to the Future on Wednesday as part of its Summer Classics series.
Is it really possible that this 23-year-old Michael J. Fox gem has attained a status similar to that of Gone With the Wind and Casablanca?
Shouldn’t we reach early retirement age, at least, before our youth is packed away in this kind of nostalgic box?
“Twenty years is plenty of time to look at something and determine whether it has stood the test of time, still holds up and has resonance today,” says Jack Epps Jr., chair of the Writing for Screen and Television program at the University of Southern California and writer of 1980s hits including Top Gun (1986) and The Secret of My Success (1987).
Montana Miller, assistant professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, says that VH1’s I Love the ’80s and ’90s nostalgia series have morphed into I Love the New Millennium.
“They’re reminiscing about the decade before it’s even over,” says Miller, whose specialty is youth culture. “As one colleague commented, ‘There’s no nostalgia like new nostalgia.’ There are now no rules on what can be considered classic.”
So, maybe The Kentucky Theatre’s next move should be to book the 2004 “classic” Spider-Man 2.
But we’re talking ’80s, and as much as it pains my Class of ’86 heart to say it, Epps and Miller are right. Enough time has passed to step back and look at the movies of the 1980s, what they said and what stood up.
“If you look at it in terms of political history, we had just gone through Vietnam and the troubling dark times and upheaval, and as a culture, we just enjoyed settling back,” Epps says. “We were enjoying things, taking pride of who we were as Americans and enjoying being American.”
Top Gun might not have been a very deep movie, but it certainly had that attitude.
“We were coming out of an era when the military had really been beaten up and demonized during Vietnam,” Miller says. “Suddenly, it was sexy and cool to be in the military.”
Particularly if you were Tom Cruise.
That’s an interesting feature of 1980s films, particularly those aimed at teens: They produced a number of matinee idols, including Cruise, Fox, Matthew Broderick and Rob Lowe.
“It’s funny how much more memorable the men are,” Miller says.
The pop-culture prof says that might indicate a teen culture largely driven by girls who liked to ogle a cute guy but preferred a leading lady who “reflected their own insecurity and longing. Molly Ringwald did something pretty special then.”
There were other things that were interesting about the guys of ’80s movies. Most of them bucked authority, but few were bad kids reminiscent of the juvenile delinquents of 1955’s The Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause.
“In a lot of these movies, you’d have the bad kids, but then an adult, like a teacher or someone, came in and straightened things out,” Miller says.
The 1980s were when kids gained power.
That might be best seen in the films of John Hughes, who wrote and directed a handful of teen classics, including The Breakfast Club (1984). Miller says that film still resonates with teens because of its honest examination of high school social structures.
There were other teen classics not under Hughes’ supervision, including Kevin Bacon’s breakout, Footloose (1984), in which a kid, once again, challenges authority and wins in heroic fashion.
In addition to endorsing freedom of expression, Footloose was emblematic of another hallmark of 1980s movies: the pop soundtrack.
“It really started with Saturday Night Fever in the late ’70s,” Epps says. “After that, every movie had to have a soundtrack where you could get a song played on the radio, because then people would hear the song and when the movie came out, they’d go see it.
“We were constantly thinking about the soundtrack when we were writing Top Gun.”
The thought paid off. Top Gun soundtrack hits included Take My Breath Away by Berlin and Danger Zone by Kenny Loggins, who was Mr. Soundtrack for a while during the Reagan era.
In addition to the radio, many soundtrack songs also begat videos for the growing media behemoth MTV.
Those videos usually contained a lot of movie footage and served as film trailers in heavy rotation.
But the 1980s weren’t just for the kids. There were plenty of adult-oriented films and general market offerings.
The optimism of the era, Epps says, can even be seen in how a notorious villain was received.
Michael Douglas won an Oscar for playing Gordon “Greed is good” Gekko in Wall Street (1988). Although he was supposed to be a bad guy, Epps says, many people in the financial industries saw him as a role model, down to his slicked-back hair and suspenders. It was an era when it was good to be a businessman; it was good to make money.
There were also ends of eras.
Epps points to Die Hard (1988) as the granddaddy of the action movies and one of the last in which viewers were dazzled by stuntmen doing their own stunts.
“Now, with CGI (computer-generated imagery), people know a lot of it is done in computers,” Epps says.
The 1980s also was the first era when a movie that didn’t do so well at the box office could get a second chance on home video and cable TV. A Christmas Story (1983) was a box-office dud, but it’s now so popular that TBS runs it for 24 hours straight on Christmas Eve/Day, and the Red Rider BB Gun and quotes from the movie are part of the pop-culture lexicon.
Right now, the 1980s is about 20 years in our DeLorean’s rear-view mirror. What will survive 50 years? Will it just be those seemingly timeless classics Gandhi (1982) and Amadeus (1984). Or will time capsules, such as some of the John Hughes movies, also make it?
“Even Casablanca, which is undeniably a classic, is very tied to its era of World War II,” Epps says. “Most movies are somewhat tied to the era in which they were made.”
Now that we are prompted to take a look back at the movies of the ’80s, we can say it was a pretty good era.
Above: Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. Farther above: Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club.