I’ve been feeling rather nostalgic lately. My Pandora player has been locked on my “80s Alternative” station since the beginning of the work wek. I’ve been digging through my DVDs and even combing through thrift shop VHS tapes while reminiscing over some great movies. This brought me to thinking about the decade in which I grew up. The decade that forged me as a person and how relevant some of these movies were to my generation.
Now, I bid of you some sympathy. I didn’t compile this list as a be-all/end-all list of iconic movies from the decade. There are plenty out there that will suit fine. What I wanted to convey is a list of movies in every sense of the meaning, defined what living in the 80s was like. I wanted to list movies where the way characters dressed were distinctively from the era. I looked at dialog that used slang only used in 80s and popular catch phrases that would sound like a time machine. Ultimately, I wanted to create a list that would have you longing for the days of shined Reebok soft high tops and feathered hair. If you weren’t there the first time around, then jump in the time machine, load up the Netflix cue, and find a spot on the floor and watch with your parents.
10 – Top Gun (1986)
This quintessential movie had all the things that made the 80s awesome. Directed by Tony Scott and brother of Ridley Scott (of Aliens fame) he was openly gay. Which was a big deal in 1986 but not the reason why this movie makes the list that defines the 80s. In the 80s, fighter jet pilots were like cowboys in westerns. They were hotshot daredevils that defied death and took down America’s enemies from the skies. Tom Cruise becomes a box office star out of this film as a skilled but conflicted pilot with ton of self-doubt. The story even included a gratuitous love scene that was designed specifically around its chart topping power ballad by Berlin. If that isn’t enough for you though, Google “Top Gun Volleyball Scene” to see a scene in all of its 1980s glory.
9 – Short Circuit (1986)
When picking apart an 80s film that deals with technology, I had several to work from. Wargames introduced us to the world of the cyber-hacker (handset modems and all). Terminator painted a good picture for us what would happen if robots and computers decided to become our masters. Both of these films were phenomenal in their portrayal of technology in the 80s but the obscure comedy portrayed all the totally rad bearings that made 1980s tech so strange. The movie is about a robot war machine that gains consciousness by being struck by lightning and wants nothing to do with killing. How could this not be pure 80s goodness? The movie stars a young Steve Guttenberg as a robotics engineer who’s more worried about his defense contract being destroyed by the rouge robot. Then there’s 80s tech staple Fisher Stevens as (go ahead and guess) an Indian technician who is nothing short of amazed by the self-awareness gained by the robot who named himself “Johnny 5” after the 80s song Who’s Johnny. A track by the short lived group El Debarge (more Google homework for you). Combined all this gratuitous 80s pop culture puts Short Circuit on the list.
8 – Platoon (1986)
Having not witnessed the horrors of the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early 1970s as I was barely even born by the end of the conflict, I honestly cannot attest to the cultural phenomenon that the war had on pop culture some 10-20 years later. In the 80s, we had a huge influx of programming regarding it. From China Beach to fictional rescue attempts of POW prisoners (as portrayed in Rambo), those who were in charge of creating such content made sure that it wasn’t to be forgotten. With that, a very quintessential topic of the 80s was the Vietnam War. Make no mistake, Platoon was as serious as a movie as you could get about the horrors of the war. The movie was written and directed by Oliver Stone, who has made no qualms with presenting historically accurate portrayals. So much that he’s all but about been shunted from Hollywood since the early 90s and making anything that he’s done in the 80s pretty much quintessential and required viewing. What also puts this movie on the map is the astounding acting performance of none other than post-millennial pariah, Charlie Sheen. As the story is told through his eyes, Sheen plays an Army private and newly assigned radio operator (a supposedly non-combative job) for a unit placed on the front lines of the war. His first person narratives are flawless deliveries of the horrors. I’m also told that a very young Johnny Depp plays a small part in the movie (*wink, wink*).
7 – Krush Groove (1985)
I can hear you groaning right now. No seriously. I can even see your wince through the screen. If you’ve gone this far, you’re now asking yourself how this movie could have possibly been culturally relevant in the 1980s. Well let me help you with that. You see, it was 1985 and we didn’t have “reality tv” then. Krush Groove tells the story of the beginnings of Def Jam records. For those not in the know, Def Jam was responsible for the likes of Run DMC, New Edition, and the legendary Kurtis Blow. Some things were adapted for dramatic purposes but the cultural relevance of hip-hop as a whole is genuinely a product of the 80s. Then there’s the addition of iconic 80s artists like Sheila E and the (not so iconic) Fat Boys. Overall, what makes this quintessential 80s is the music and fashion surrounding it. There’s absolutely no way that you watch this film and not know that this was set in the 80s.
6 – Goonies (1985)
Another common theme of 80s pop culture was a resurgence of two types of movies. The first was the “buddy flick”. You know, a group of pals get into mischief together while strengthening their bonds. Only to realize that childhood is only a minor part of their lives. Movies like the Outsiders and Stand By Me come into mind immediately. The problem with those two amazing movies, though is that they’re set in other time periods. So any kind of decade references to the 80s (and thus making a defining move of the decade) would not be well kept. Fine movies as they are, they’re not quintessentially representative of the 1980s. Goonies, on the other hand, is an example of a fun “buddy flick” that also implements a second common theme of the 80s. That being the cheesy horror movie. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, think of movies like Nightmare on Elm Street or anything directed by John Carpenter. By combining both of these elements, throwing in relevant cultural references, and a funky theme song by Cyndi Lauper you have the recipe for a movie destined for 80s infamy.
5 – Purple Rain (1984)
So were here at the midway of the list and as I review the upper five movies, I’m forced to really define this list. I’m forced to look back upon my own childhood and young adulthood and ask myself to define the things that made the 1980s so unique. One of those things that I can recall that was genuinely unique to the decade was the family structure. The movie Purple Rain starred R&B rocker Prince in a story that was rumored to be his own autobiography. Whether or not it is true, we’ll never know but “The Purple One” gave an outstanding performance as he portrayed a young, struggling musician who went against all odds to achieve success. We witnessed a broken home life that was similar to our own as young adults desperately seeking to discover who we are. The platinum selling album soundtrack by Prince and his band The Revolution was a definitive musical expression of being young in the decade. The song “When Doves Cry” portrays an abusive home life and negative influences from people who are supposed to care. While “Let’s Go Crazy” starts in a prophetic sermon asking the listener to gather and celebrate life (rather than mourn it). The music and imagery combined makes this not only one of the most quintessential movies that defined the decade but an iconic example as well.
4 – Wall Street (1987)
One of the most predominant ideals set forth during what has been called “The Me Decade” is the acquisition of monetary wealth. This is so true even today that our society has evolved to make the idea of becoming rich a priority. This came about in the 80s and it began no other than places like the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street. In a world where money is power, Michael Douglas portrays the crowned monarch of Wall Street. A position that many are chomping at the bit to push him off at any cost and a spot that Douglas’ character will fight for the same. In this movie we get to see what the true price of greed is as cutthroat stock brokers buy, sell, and trade just about anything to get ahead and make money. This movie portrays what many of the decade consider to be the worst in all of us. Where, as Douglas’ character put it, “Greed is good.” This is the core of “Voodoo Economics” and the images of everything that drove many people to substance abuse, inhumanity, and even suicide. It also drives a steady picture into the viewers’ head of the darker side of the economic boom of the 80s and therefore makes it one of the decade’s most iconic movies.
3 – Red Dawn (1984)
If there’s any one lesson that you learned growing up in the 1980s is that Communism (and its predecessor, Socialism) is bad. The Soviet Union was bad and although they were our allies in two World Wars and a handful of conflicts, they were out to destroy Democracy in the United States. What we learned later on is all they really wanted was our Levi’s, our music, and our cars. Nonetheless in 1984 those big bad Ruskies were a definite threat to the American way of life, or so we were told. The movie Red Dawn depicted this ever looming threat in full force as the Soviet Occupation of America takes hold in our country’s heartland. What made this movie so depictive of the era is not only its cast of Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen (who has already starred in the war movie, Platoon), Lea Thompson (America’s girl next door), and an up-and-coming Jennifer Grey but also their roles. It wasn’t uncommon to cast actors well into their twenties for teenage roles. Mostly because many of the child actors of the day were now of age. Typecasting was a very real thing in the 80s. Not to mention changes in child labor laws making it a bit more difficult to employ actual teenagers. Nonetheless, these mid-America “teens” rally together a freedom fighting force to overthrow the Communist invaders thus showing a great deal of American patriotism as well as all the other things that make this country the best nation on the planet. *That’s just great 80s culture at its most paramount.*
2 – Less Than Zero (1987)
Moving along from the flag waiving hoo-hah of our number three movie, we launch right into that in which is truly the most understated but greatest underlying issue of the country at the time. Between the definitive social class separation of the “haves” and “have-nots” we also have a growing drug problem in the country. Well, at least we’re supposed to believe that we do. As children, we’re drilled with slogans like “Just Say No” and groups like “D.A.R.E.” (which to this day, I can’t remember what it means). We see our parents who smoke their way into cancer induced comas or pound a fifth of liquor as a means to escape the dredges of their lives, yet we’re supposed to kindly disregard the prospect of a drug like cocaine? If you don’t see the absurdity in this right here and now, I suggest you stop reading this and spend some time amongst your fellow humans. Wait a minute, though. If only losers use drugs, why is a rich kid (portrayed by Robert Downey, Jr.) doing them? He’s got it all, right? Well, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out where this story goes. The teenaged Iron Man played the role of a lifetime opposite the ultra-controlling drug dealer played by James Spader (voice of Ultron). Perhaps it’s because he actually had a serious problem that put him in jail and rehab. There’s several reasons why you won’t be able to watch this movie without saying how much it feels like the 80s. Don’t let that stop you, though, because behind all the neon, polyester, and “Miami Vice” stereotypes there’s actually a really good movie in there that defined a generation.
(Honorable Mention for this category: Bright Lights, Big City – get this soundtrack!)
1 – The Breakfast Club (1985)
If one was to place the finger on one single movie producer that summed up the 80s in a two hour reel of film, that honor would have to go to none other than John Hughes. This was a man who knew how to put together a story that every kid growing up in the 80s would relate to. This entire list could consist of his movies for various reasons but in all fairness and variety, I chose to narrow it down to the 1985 classic, The Breakfast Club. The entire main cast consisted of the hottest young actors of the decade and catching them in their prime. They became to be known as core of the group dubbed, The Brat Pack. In this movie, every 80s teenage stereotype was represented. You had the Goth or “basket case” portrayed by Ally Sheedy. You had the rebel portrayed by Judd Nelson. The outcast nerd performed by Anthony Michael Hall. There was John Hughes go-to-girl, Molly Ringwold who played the popular girl or “princess” named Claire. To round the cast evenly, Hughes cast a Sheen to the squad with Emilio Estevez as the ever-so-serious and take charge athlete. Hands down, this movie is everything totally awesome about the 80s. The ending and title track by Simple Minds is the anthem of all anthems for all 80s kids. The clever writing and interactions between the characters and even the adults makes this one a timeless classic among classics.
Yes, these movies will appear as being dated but that’s what makes the 80s so iconic. The looks, the way the characters talked, even many of the scenarios will strike you as being almost campy. Yet, in all of that is what makes the 80s so incredibly awesome. You can’t recreate the vibe or energy that transpired those years. You can surely emulate them as many try to do with remakes but you’ll never be able to capture the feeling we got when the loser gave the prom queen his ear ring. You can’t summarize the excitement you felt watching an ace fighter pilot fly over his opponent and “improving communications.” You won’t be able to feel the apathy towards a soldier from a generation before like that. Those moments are captured forever in these films. When you watch these movies (and I highly suggest that you do!), take in all the nuances and lines as part of the culture as a whole. Then you’ll get what it was like to be living in one of the greatest decades of our history.