Sure, sure, “best” is a very subjective term, but it’s unarguable that American cinema of the 1980s has a certain je ne sais quoi – a style, a feel, an aesthetic, a tone – that sets it apart from what came before. What happened to cinema that wrought such fundamental changes? Well, for one thing…
The blockbuster came to stay
Cinema changed forever in 1975 when Jaws made $100 million. Then Star Wars came along in 1977 and proved that the big fish’s big box office was not a fluke: a single movie could draw insane multiplex receipts, if it was packaged and marketed well.
By the height of the ’80s, the formula was set: high-concept stories, star-packed casts, massive budgets and a marketing blitz like a military campaign. This kind of thinking underpinned almost every major American film of the ’80s, and gave us Raiders of the Lost Ark, Beverley Hills Cop, Ghostbusters, Batman, Back to the Future and more.
Teenagers ruled the roost
Sure, teen movies had been around since the days of Andy Hardy, but it was the ’80s when the teen market was at its most lucrative, and Hollywood responded with a tsunami of movies aimed at cashed-up, hormone-addled and mildly alienated young adults.
While filmmakers like Tim Hunter worked the darker side of the street with works like River’s Edge, John Hughes became the pop-art prince of prep school with his string of hits, including Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful. While jocks got their sports movies like Hoosiers and Youngblood and nerds came into their own with Revenge of the Nerds and WarGames, punks and outcasts got their due in fare like Repo Man and, later, Beetlejuice.
From this fecund ground sprouted the fabled “Brat Pack”, including Rob Lowe, Charlie Sheen, Emilio Estevez, Demi Moore, Ally Sheedy and Molly Ringwald, a coterie of young stars whose off-screen antics dominated the tabloids while their films dominated the box office.
The birth of the modern franchise
Did you like Star Wars? Here’s The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Back to the Future? Wait for Parts II and II. Lethal Weapon? Still going strong. Raiders of the Lost Ark? They’re making another one!
As a natural extension of the blockbuster mentality, studios quickly realised that people who ponied up for one movie might be inclined to turn up for more of the same. While previously sequels had been a case of diminishing returns, with old ideas being recycled with lower budgets and fewer box office expectations, the ’80s saw a complete reversal of that thinking – now the budgets were bigger, the stakes higher and the returns higher still.
We’re still following that logic today, as the massive Marvel movie franchise and similar “shared universe” franchising experiments demonstrate. Whether that’s a plus or a minus is left to the reader.
From MTV to the multiplex
The emerging artform of the music video became a proving ground for nascent feature filmmakers, who honed their craft on increasingly elaborate clips for the humongously popular cable channel, MTV. These days that’s no big thing – David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Michael Bay and more all cut their teeth on video – but back in the day it was a whole new avenue for emerging directors to learn their chops.
It proved particularly fertile ground in Australia, with filmmakers including Russell Mulcahy (Highlander), Alex Proyas (Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds), Richard Lowenstein (Dogs in Space) making the leap from clip to cinema. Elsewhere, filmmakers like Ridley Scott and his brother, Tony, were bringing the aesthetic they learned shooting commercials to the big screen, lending the ’80s its signature slick, glossy, hyperkinetic style.
‘Dogs in Space’
See the movie, buy the soundtrack
It’s all about product integration. Sure, you could make millions off a hit movie, but if you put a hot new song in that movie, wrapped a bright, brash music video around it (see above), and used that to sell a soundtrack album, that was even better. Heck, people would actually pay to own what was effectively advertising material for your movie!
Adrian Lyne’s Flashdance was arguably ground zero for this phenomenon – the soundtrack album, which featured ‘What a Feeling’ by Irene Cara and ‘Maniac’ by Michael Sembello, sold over six million units in the US alone. Purple Rain, The Lost Boys, Dirty Dancing, Footloose and Ghostbusters all spawned hugely successful singles and albums, and it’s a trend that continues to this day.
It’s one thing for European and arthouse films to explore sexuality – it’s quite another to see this kind of thing at your local Coke ‘n’ popcorn multiplex. The fabled excess of the ’80s didn’t just involve budgets, fashions and an entirely different kind of coke – filmmakers were pushing the boundaries in terms of what was permissible in mainstream fare. In American cinema this mainly meant violence, but sex was also on the table (and everywhere else).
While Bo Derek scoured the world for the ideal lover in Bolero, Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke embarked on a steamy affair in 9 1⁄2 Weeks. Richard Gere was the epitome of commercialised sex as the titular American Gigolo, going on to flip the script by romancing Julia Roberts’ working girl in Pretty Woman a decade later. Dirty Dancing remains the go-to sexy/romantic film of the era, but it’s almost chaste compared to some of the edgier material that abounded, from original bunny boiler Fatal Attraction, to the historic and erotic Dangerous Liaisons.
Queer cinema remained deeply closeted for pretty much the entire decade, with LGBTQI+ audiences making do with William Friedkin’s transgressive leather opus, Cruising, or the odd deeply coded horror movie, such as Fright Night and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge.
It’s Spielberg’s world – we only buy tickets for it
Can one person own a decade? Interesting philosophical question. But if, for the sake of argument, it’s possible, then at some point director Steven Spielberg’s mother stencilled his name on the ’80s’ metaphorical hatband, because if anyone could lay claim to that 10-year span, it’s the ’Berg. His films were not only wildly popular, critically acclaimed and hugely profitable, his influence can be seen in the work of almost every other mainstream American filmmaker who followed him.
Spielberg not only directed some of his most iconic films in this period, starting with Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981 and finishing with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989, he was a prolific producer as well, and it’s here that the full scope of his influence becomes clear. Spielberg has his fingerprints on Poltergeist, Gremlins, The Goonies, Back to the Future, Innerspace, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and more. Beyond the shadow of a doubt, Spielberg shaped American filmmaking in the ’80s more than any other single figure.
Stream a collection of 80s movies right now at SBS On Demand.