Tuesday, 13 September 2011

VHS Quest #12. The Legend Of Billie Jean (Matthew Robbins, 1985)

Hit me with your best shot... The Legend Of Billie Jean (1985)

"ATTICA! ATTICA! ATTICA!" roared Al Pacino to the protesting mobs in Sidney Lumet's sweltering heist drama Dog Day Afternoon (1975), perfectly encapsulating the reactionary social conscience of 70's cinema. The silver screen took up arms in these turbulent times, raising a big V sign to the establishment, taken to mean "fuck you, and thanks for nothing." But the 1980's - largely defined by cheesy romance, big hair and epic choruses - saw America settle down and give rise to its youth. MTV was launched in 1981, and computers entered the home shortly afterward. Not only did somebody care about what teenagers had to say, but they were actually helping them to say it (case-in-point: John Hughes). In 1983 Cyndi Lauper released her hit single 'Girls Just Want To Have Fun'. Just like the boys, they did, but liberty took a hit in 1985 when international superstar Rock Hudson died of AIDS (many teen dramas would later deal with the repercussions). This was also the year that The Legend Of Billie Jean - a cynically engineered kids vs. adults flick tailor-made for the Generation X crowd - hit cinemas. Like so many others, Billie Jean Davy (Helen Slater; future Supergirl) was idealistic and hopeful of life. Some jerk broke her brother Binx's (Christian Slater) scooter. All she wanted was the $608 owed in damages, but instead she got the adventure of a lifetime...

Actually, that last statement is a little misleading, and my reductionist history of two decades hardly provides sufficient context, but this is a review, not an essay, and I simply think it's important to get a feel for the time Billie Jean came from. Let's expand the plot. Binx's scooter is stolen by local asswipe Hubie (Barry Tubb), who appears to have never matured past fifth grade, where he was likely that bully who always took your lunch money. The strong-headed (and bleach blonde) Binx fights to reclaim his scooter, but comes home bloodied and bruised with the vehicle in matching condition. The next day Billie Jean takes a bill for $608 to Hubie's father, Mr. Pyatt (Richard Bradford), who instead insists on raping her over weekly installments starting at $50. Turns out the apple doesn't rot too far from the tree. Naturally she fights back and Binx shoots the scumbag in the shoulder ("he said it wasn't loaded!"). They become outlaws and yada, yada, yada - you can pretty much pick it up from here. It's worth mentioning though that two of Billie and Binx's friends tag along for the ride; Ophelia (Martha Gehman) and Putter (Yeardly Smith, voice of Lisa Simpson), seemingly for the purpose of rationale and comic relief respectively.

All you really need to know about Robbins' film is that its title originates from the Michael Jackson single (simply Billie Jean) which in 1983 made MTV an overnight sensation. Seeing as this movie is nothing but a fusion of popular song and wardrobe selections from the channel's heyday, involving a plotline where the kids successfully rebel and all adults are either cops or perverts, it's no wonder that the film fell flat on its ass at the box office. The Legend Of Billie Jean is Exhibit A in the case of what happens when studio execs try to get down with the kids, and its reputation as nothing but an advert for MTV withstands - but y'know what? I kinda liked it anyway...

Because for all of its flaws - and boy, you'll need two hands to count 'em - Billie Jean is actually a really fun little flick, and its naivety proves quite charming. The screenplay develops Billie and Binx into believably rounded characters, and although it also takes certain liberties for the sake of entertainment - the cringing sight of Binx in drag pops to mind - they're generally quite consistent too. You buy Billie as the pretty, vulnerable Texan gal, but you also buy her as a determined and confident young woman who has been forced by society to grow into tougher skin. The zipper jacket, arm band and cropped hair are a little superficial, but Slater (a terrific actress) make a real effort to dig deeper, and I'd be lying if I didn't say I was behind her all the way. It's her performance which the film really relies on, and thankfully she's up to the task. It's also interesting to see Keith Gordon pop up here, playing a bored rich kid who offers himself as a hostage to get closer to Billie. Gordon was actually a pretty solid actor during this time, having appeared in killer car flick Christine (Carpenter, 1983) the year before. But he's most notable for his underrated directing career, so let me take this opportunity to point again toward Waking The Dead (2000), one of my all-time favorite films.

The great thing about Billie Jean is that even the scenes which don't work are entertaining, such as when a neighborhood of kids recruit Billie to save one of their friends who is being beaten by his father. "You're really her" he says, suddenly cowering in fear. It's a false note, but what's important is that the filmmakers have their heart in the right place; it's about empowerment. There's another awkward moment where a bystander turns his hand to bounty hunting, resulting in a car chase which ends with Putter getting her first period. "When do I get a diaphragm?" she asks, as the audience retreats into a place of deep discomfort. But again, there's a real sincerity to that scene, and kudos to the filmmakers for trying it out - they're really attempting to connect with that younger audience, and their failure is an incredibly respectful one. The film ultimately ends on a moral charge, and that's disappointing, but it's certainly so much better than most would have you believe. In fact, Pat Benatar, who wrote the theme song 'Invincible', often refers to this as the worst film ever made. A critic she is not.

In retrospect we can clearly pinpoint what went wrong with Billie Jean, and it's simply that trends were changing at a faster rate than the studios could keep up with. 1985's other big draw was Back To The Future (Robert Zemeckis), in which a geeky college kid travels time and gets the girl. MTV struck gold with that one too when Huey Lewis And The News' 'The Power Of Love' became a hit off the back of the film's popularity. But a later song from their discography better defines the MTV crowd: Hip To Be Square. Indeed, Generation X just weren't the rebellious type. This, ladies and gentlemen, was the time of the nerd. A time when Michael Anthony Hall could be a star. Now he'd be the comic relief in a film where perfectly formed furnishings like Taylor Lautner would play the lead and get the girl. For shame.

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