How We Got Here – The ’80’s On Film

I was wandering through the supermarket last Saturday when I caught myself humming along to the Muzak being piped into the dairy cooler, it was a MIDI computer track of “Faithfully” by Journey.

It was a cruel moment of reality.

When I was a kid the supermarket didn’t play cool songs, they played songs that my mom liked.  I remember hearing her discover and then exclaim, “This is ‘A Boy Named Sue’ by Johnny Cash” in almost the same manner that I did.

On Saturday I realized that the Supermarket plays songs relevant to their target market and that over time I gradually became part of the grocery demographic.

It’s easy to forget that today’s cultural landscape was also forged by events that took place gradually, over time.  To understand why today is the way it is you have to take into account what happened in the many days leading up to the one you are currently living in.

As the internet emerges as the new primary culture shaping medium I’m looking back at the medium that initiated the most powerful change at the end of the 20th century: Hollywood Film.

This is a list of 10 culture shaping films of the 1980’s, one for each calendar year of the decade of decadence.  It isn’t a list of the “best”, “top grossing” or, “most popular” (although many are in those categories) but a list of the movies that defined the ’80’s and set the stage for the world we are now living in.  It is by no means comprehensive.

These are the movies that led us to where we are today:

1980- 9 to 5 (PG)
While singer/songwriter Dolly Parton was already a household name before 9 to 5, she became a pop culture icon after starring in, and recording the music for, the highest grossing comedy of 1980.  9 to 5 was a movie where the women didn’t just go to work for the men, they finally got even with them for being sexist, chauvinist, and unfair in the workplace.

The movie struck a nerve with American audiences, many of whom were women who had gone to work during the Carter Era recession and spent years enduring the boorish behavior and sexual advances of their superiors.  It also helps that when you throw Lilly Tomlin and Dabney Coleman at a social problem, you’ll laugh AND get angry about it.

1981- Raiders of the Lost Ark (PG)
Indiana Jones is a deeply flawed intellectual in search of moral redemption.  His dutiful dedication to the historical and tangible are about to be confronted by the power of the supernatural and the emotional.  Along the way he converts from cynic to true believer while remaining a man’s man in the face of a powerful woman.  How can you not love that?

Not only did Raiders provide a much needed shot in the arm for the failing action-adventure genre, it also relaunched the period movie. By looking back in time to a glorified 1930’s, as opposed to space or the future, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg introduced us to two of the major tenets of the new postmodern worldview:  The future won’t be any better than today, and science can’t save you.

1982- E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (PG)
The late 1970’s had been such a cultural buzz-kill for young families (Walt Disney’s The Black Hole anyone?) that Steven Spielberg’s feel-good story about a pre-teen and his self-actualizing experience with an alien helped audiences finally breathe our first Reagan Era sigh of relief.

The real breakthrough of this movie wasn’t the creature effects, it was the first honest, mainstream portrayal of the new version of American childhood; young Elliot lived a life of suburban, fatherless neglect and nobody got angry about it until Dan Quayle made political issue of Murphy Brown …20 years later.

1983- Risky Business (R)
Risky Business is the movie that launched the career of a brand new icon for youth culture: Mr. Tom Cruise.  After Risky Business, the mustachioed ladies man of the ’70’s could no longer compete with fresh faced , earnest, preppy-dom. The Box Office business wasn’t so risky; it turns out the pursuit of money and sex as recreation was a gold mine at the box office.

No movie revealed the dark underbelly of the American appetite quite the way Risky Business did.  This sordid tale of a high school senior turned upscale pimp (in pursuit of college tuition no less!) probably wouldn’t have been green lit if America knew that the AIDS crisis would soon become a human problem, as opposed to a gay one.

1984- Footloose (PG)
This story of a repressed Midwestern town being dragged into the present by a teenager from the big city wasn’t noteworthy because it showed us what teenagers were really doing in their spare time, it was noteworthy because it gave us an honest look at how fear motivates parents who are on the wrong end of a generation gap.

Footloose’s biggest contribution to culture was the emergence of the pop song driven soundtrack. While pop stars had been involved in creating unified soundtracks for films in the past, Footloose collected songs from a broad spectrum of popular artists. The success of the film’s soundtrack album meant that all future youth oriented films would require a soundtrack of pop hits.

1985- Back to the Future (PG)
The 1980’s were chock full of terrible science fiction films dedicated to outer space and laser guns but Roberet Zemekis and Steven Spielberg turned that all on it’s ear when they made a movie about a teenager who goes back in time to save his parent’s failing marriage.  Not only was the movie fun to watch, but it challenged the way people thought about the decisions they made and how they influenced the lives they would/could lead.

Studio executives struck unexpected gold when they green-lit a picture that involved the 1980’s and the 1950’s.  The thirty-year time warp allowed both parents and their children to feel like teens while sitting in the same theater.  Back To The Future created the cross generational blockbuster genre.

1986- Top Gun (PG-13)
Riding the massive wave of nationalism created by the success of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” initiatives, Tom Cruise and Jerry Bruckheimer unleashed a blockbuster that offered us the baby boomer definition of success.  Individual Achievement became the goal and the glory of Americans who desperately needed to believe that a “Maverick” could do it his own way without endangering his peers.

When Tom Cruise launched off the deck of an Aircraft Carrier to singlehandedly save America and his fellow soldiers, he didn’t just snuff out some non-denomination Middle Eastern pilots, he also laid waste to the idea that teams are more important than the individuals who comprise them.  The moral of the story? If you’re awesome there’s no check your ego can write that your body can’t cash.

1987- Lethal Weapon (R)
The box office surprise of Lethal Weapon wasn’t found in its post Vietnam War PTSD themed plot about corruption, cocaine, and cops in Los Angeles, it was found in the audience’s ability to accept a buddy/cop picture where the black guy was the responsible, seasoned, family man and the white guy was a loose cannon who teetered on the brink of sanity.

Loud, violent, profane, and intense, Lethal Weapon laid a new formula for action/thrillers where black people could be middle-class cops who shot white criminals.  It also convinced the world that an Australian named Mel Gibson no longer needed to have his voice overdubbed.

1988- Coming to America (R)
While movies like 48 hrs. and Beverly Hills Cop majored in exploiting the dramatic and cultural tension that could be mined from the long delayed racial integration of Hollywood, Coming to America did just the opposite.  The hilarious tale of an African prince’s immersion into African-American culture was the first time white audiences turned out in droves to see a movie almost entirely populated by and produced for African-Americans.

Coming to America was the demonstration that a bumper crop of young, black, talent had safely received the baton of their destiny from Bill Cosby.  The film set a new direction for bi-racial social interaction in our country; it was OK for white people to enjoy “black stuff” and vice versa.  Without Coming to America there wouldn’t have been “In Living Color”… or Vanilla Ice.

1989- Batman (PG-13)
While the decade came to a close, America’s ’80’s buzz was getting ready to turn into a hangover. As the first Bush administration began to grapple with the chinks in America’s fiscal armor, a new alternative subculture was beginning to emerge.  Director Tim Burton had already set the stage with the critically acclaimed Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, but his brooding vision of Batman brought the 1980’s version of “goth” to the mainstream.

While Burton prepped us for the Post Modern revolution, Michael Keaton’s Batman and Jack Nicholson’s Joker revealed that audiences weren’t merely ready to pull for an emotionally disturbed hero, but also ready to root for the bad guy.  Batman set the tone for the industrial strength gloom that the 1990’s were about to unleash.

Is there a culture shaping movie from the ’80’s that you love and you’re wondering how I missed it? Let us hear about it, fire away in the Reply section.

And yes, next week it’s the 1990’s.

15 Responses to “How We Got Here – The ’80’s On Film”

  1. Sharon O August 31, 2011 at 11:56 am #

    The movies back then were so much better in many ways than they are now. I rarely watch a current movie.
    I thought of the ‘serious movies’ like “The way we were” or “Beaches” they were in the 80’s maybe 90’s.
    As far as the grocery stores, just heard last night they are setting up scents to make the purchaser want to purchase more, such as fresh bread scent in the bread section. Bakery would have fresh cake or pie scents, fruit would be aromatic such as fresh strawberries and don’t forget the coffee aisle who doesn’t LOVE the smell of freshly ground beans?
    It is all about selling.
    I enjoyed this ‘bit of trivia’ blog post.

    • Jon August 31, 2011 at 12:07 pm #

      Man, Beaches had some great performances by children! If they made movies in Smell-ovision I would think twice before watching anything with Keanu Reeves… he stinks.

      • Sharon O September 1, 2011 at 11:38 am #

        Are you talking about the Beaches with Bette Midler? is there another one?

        • Jon September 1, 2011 at 3:31 pm #

          Yes, the kid versions of Bette Midler an Barbara Hershey were great!

          • Sara September 3, 2011 at 8:42 pm #

            The kid version of Bette Midler was none other than Mayim Bialik, better known as Blossom. I sure did love that movie though; and I might have loved Blossom too.

            • Jon September 4, 2011 at 6:06 pm #

              Joey… Lawrence… Whoa!

  2. Patrick Curtain August 31, 2011 at 12:45 pm #

    * WarGames
    * Princess Bride
    * Real Genius
    * Footloose


    • Jon August 31, 2011 at 1:29 pm #

      “Hello Dr. Falken… What game would you like to play?”

      “You’re trying to kidnap what I’ve rightfully stolen!”

      “I am only saying that because I care, there’s a lot of decaffeinated brands on the market that are just as tasty as the real thing.”

      “Well, its just I get the feeling youve been kissed a lot, and I’m afraid I’d suffer by comparison.”

      Great movies Patrick!

  3. Mike Maxwell August 31, 2011 at 4:57 pm #

    1980 – Elephant Man
    1981 – Chariots of fire
    1982 – Blade Runner
    1984 – Terminator -AAAAAHNOOOOLD
    1986 – Ferris Bueller’s day off
    1987 – Princess Bride – Priceless
    1989 – Parenthood with Steve Martin
    1989 – Glory w/ Matthhew Broderick

  4. Jon August 31, 2011 at 7:49 pm #

    I can’t argue with any of this list… Especially Glory an Ferris Bueller. Great job Maxwell.

  5. Jeff Patterson September 1, 2011 at 8:35 am #

    I cannot add to your epic list(s). For spreading pop culture, few things have accelerated the spread of pop culture over the last 30 years like this: TV satellite dish (1981)

  6. Jon September 1, 2011 at 11:15 am #

    Remember when you had to know which satellite to point your dish to?

  7. Hannah September 2, 2011 at 10:18 am #

    How did you manage to make a list of culture-shaping 80’s movies and not include a single John Hughes?!?

    • Jon September 4, 2011 at 6:09 pm #

      Sadly the Breakfast Club was released the same year as Back to the Future… I had to choose. In the long run i felt that John Hughes movies were more commentary than culture shaping.

      • Hannah September 9, 2011 at 10:59 am #

        You should check out “You Couldn’t Ignore Me if You Tried” by Susannah Gora. It’s all about the teen movies of the 80’s and how they shaped and gave a voice to a generation.

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