The 1980s saw the explosion of the Blockbuster: following epics like Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977), films had to be bigger, more action-packed, and more dazzling. The highest grossing films of the decade, like the two Star Wars sequels, and the Indiana Jones franchise, revel in reckless adventure, with brilliant special effects technology, sophisticated sound tracks, mega-marketing budgets, and costly, highly-paid stars. And yet it’s easy, with the modern tendency to disguise taste under fifteen layers of irony, to only appreciate the 80s with an air of superiority, or at least as a ‘guilty pleasure’. But should anyone really feel guilty for loving Uncle Buck, or for understanding that David Bowie’s Labyrinth is literally the best thing ever? This was a time in film that was about exactly the opposite: unapologetic fun.
After MTV launched in 1981 with the words ‘Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll!’, the impact was seen everywhere in popular culture. As studios pandered to the new and demanding ‘MTV generation’, there was an unprecedented surge in action-packed, flashy, often simplistic movies, such as Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and Die Hard (1988). But the outpouring of films aimed at a teenage audience saw the establishment of a cinema institution: the John Hughes teen movie. Invariably honest and hilarious depictions of middle-class American high school life, Hughes’ success lay in his ability to simultaneously respect the universal conflicts and longings of his almost painfully ordinary adolescents, and find the humour within them. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) celebrates the importance of seeking joy in life, as Ferris’s rebellious intelligence charms everyone around him, and even begins to transform his antithetically awkward best friend. But in ‘the simplest terms, the most convenient definition’, The Breakfast Club (1985) is the ultimate teen movie. Exploring the scramble of five members of different cliques to discover a more substantial identity, the movie examines adolescent issues of sex, drugs, abuse, suicide both faithfully and subversively. But if the angst of stereotyping ‘a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal’ feels a little dated, then Michael Lehmann’s Heathers (1989) provides bite and modern wit which still resonates. A dark comedy satirising competitive teen popularity, Heathers takes classroom revenge to its final conclusion: ‘teen angst bullshit has a body-count’. Full of savage one-liners (‘Did you have a brain tumour for breakfast?’) shocking violence, and an incredibly sharp performance from Winona Ryder, this film stands out against its earnest and euphoric contemporaries, and even now remains fresher than it’s descendant Mean Girls (2004).
But the unashamed enthusiasm of the decade is most exuberantly captured in its delight in pop music, as characters across the spectrum dance, mime and sing with youthful joy and playfulness. From the archetypal Adventures in Babysitting opening, to Marty McFly’s ‘new sound’, to the unabashed, childish physical comedy of Beetlejuice’s Banana Boat Song, the vibrant effervescence of the 80s big musical numbers captures the spirit of the decade in cinema. Even touching its darker instances (Platoon’s moment of relief comes as a Tracks of my Tears singalong, heart-breaking in its humanity in contrast with the grim war scenes, and the poignancy of the laughing soldiers belting the lyric “Although I might be laughing loud and hearty, deep inside I’m blue”) the release of musical expression is undeniable. But yet again it’s Hughes who does it best, with the Breakfast Club’s detention disco, Duckie Dale’s frantic Otis impression, and Ferris Bueller’s unforgettable parade scene as 10,000 people twist and shout along with him. In Ferris’s immortal words, ‘Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it’, and this defiant thirst for rebellious fun is what the 80s was all about.