Looking back at the scrappy and silly 1985 teen action drama
Those of us who lived and came of age in the 1980s no doubt find it amusing that the decade’s film, music and fashion have become objects for contemporary pop culture fetishists. But that’s how this train rolls. The common zeitgeist almost always becomes exotic, exciting, important.
Still, who knew that director Matthew (DRAGONSLAYER, writer of CRIMSON PEAK) Robbins’ earnest 1985 teen drama/crime caper THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN would emerge as a classic. Certainly not the critics of the period who dismissed its heavy-handed metaphors and cartoonish social statements as kid stuff and fluff, nor the young people it was targeted towards, who mostly ignored it theatrically and got tired of its presence on home video and cable very quickly. And while time hasn’t healed the picture’s ample flaws, there’s an undeniable energy to the piece, with broadly drawn performances by a doozy of a cast and of course, there’s that thundering Pat Benatar song (“Invincible”) that weaves its way into the soundtrack of the film itself. Re-released by Mill Creek Entertainment as part of their retro VHS line of Blu-ray’s as the “Fair is Fair” edition, the movie is definitely worth a watch (or re-watch) and is anything but boring.
Helen Slater (SUPERGIRL) stars as the heroine of the title, a trailer park teen who looks after her rambunctious little brother Binx (played by Slater’s real little brother Christian, in an early role) while her oblivious single mother courts a succession of men. After the local rich bastard, Hubie Pryatt (Barry Tubb), trashes Binx’s beloved motor scooter and beats him, Billie Jean goes to Pryatt’s sleazy father’s (Richard Bradford) store demanding the $609 it will take to repair the vehicle. But when Pryatt senior attempts to rape her, Billie Jean and her brother – along with pals Ophelia (Martha Gehman) and Putter (Yeardley Smith, Lisa on THE SIMPSONS) – fight back, with Binx accidentally shooting and wounding the lecherous man. Soon, the kids hit the road, with the hideous Pyatt clan citing assault and attempted robbery and a sympathetic detective (Peter Coyote) suspecting something more complex. After a botched attempt at reconciliation, Billie Jean bolts again, becoming a kind of media superstar and an instant folk hero to local teens tired of the oppression of authority. All Billie Jean wants is an apology and her money. And yet her fans look to her as a kind of modern day Joan of Arc.
After a sweet, believable set-up that paints the struggles of poor, rural youth nicely, THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN promptly goes bananas, with the young woman’s celebrity status springing too life far-too-fast and her acceptance as a kind of pop-punk vigilante more than a bit ridiculous. The Joan of Arc angle is about as subtle as a sledgehammer, from scenes of Billie Jean wide-eyed watching Otto Preminger’s SAINT JOAN on the TV and, after swooning over star Jean Seberg’s tortured soliloquies and hacking off her hair, to the climactic burning of Pyatt’s merchandise stand and the massive statue of the angel of vengeance he created toppling in flames. It’s all more than a bit silly and the odd thing is that these moments of ham-fisted sincerity brush up against other sequences that are intended to be goofball comedy, making the viewer never quite sure how to feel about any of it. It’s messages get mangled by its inconsistent tone.
Still, the comments of the cult of celebrity are prophetic and if remade today, with the aid of hashtags, viral video and “influencers”, one would be able to buy into Billie Jean’s meteoric rise to infamy far easier. The movie is fun and the cast is a blast, including a post-CHRISTINE Keith Gordon as the D.A.’s monster-loving son who helps shape Billie Jean’s destiny and naturally, falls in love with her along the way. Did we mention his dad is played by cult actor Dean Stockwell (WEREWOLF OF WASHINGTON, BLUE VELVET)? Well, he is. And he’s great.
Sure, THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN is a mess, but it stands out from the sea of boy-meets-girl John Hughes movies the decade was churning out to young people and there’s certainly far more on its mind than many other 80’s artifacts that today’s youth are fawning over (we’re looking at you THE LOST BOYS!). Billie Jean herself is a real deal hero and it’s welcome to see the likes of the character now, especially in the face of so many hollow, posturing role models littering news feeds everywhere. And again, if you don’t feel your blood rise and your heart swell when that anthemic Benatar tune plays, there’s something terribly wrong with you…