It’s hard to imagine now, but there was once a time when 80s nostalgia didn’t exist. Those of us who stayed up past midnight to see the 1990s begin were ready to sprint to 2000 when Prince warned us the party might be over. Believe me, no one was cranking “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” or “99 Luftballoons” at their New Year’s parties. Yet, it didn’t take very long for 80s nostalgia to creep in, and for Hollywood to take notice. It began by peddling in the obvious 80s tropes – leg warmers, Madonna, Pac-Man, Miami Vice, I want my MTV, etc. While this hasn’t always been a bad thing (Hot Tub Time Machine anyone?) in today’s blog we ask the question: Are there good movies/TV shows set in the 80s that aren’t cheesy and cliché?
I’ll admit that I recently enjoyed rewatching The Wedding Singer, which in 1998 became the early matriarch of 80’s tribute films. Nineteen years later, there’s now nostalgia for this type of nostalgia film – one that checks the boxes of top ten 80s music and features characters that dress like Michael Jackson, Boy George, and Madonna. Here are my picks for 80s storytelling with less cheese and more beef:
VH1’s I Love The 80s was fun for a while, but overdosing on it led to a too-much-cotton candy bellyache. We were ready for a more subtle and sophisticated approach, and Adventureland delivered. Our first clue is the soundtrack: featuring deeper 80s catalog cuts like INXS’s “Don’t Change”, Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over”, and several Velvet Underground tunes (among staples like Animotion’s “Obsession” and Wang Chung’s “Dance Hall Days”). The storyline itself taps into that 80s undercurrent of the innocence vs. harsh reality; childlike wonder vs. adulthood. This is captured via the central romance of a young man (Jesse Eisenberg) at his first summer job trying to find a way to the heart of the unattainable girl (Kristen Stewart) haunted by a troubled past. The writing and direction are excellent, with the two leads delivering well-crafted and underplayed performances.
Along with the similarly themed film, The Way, Way Back (2013), Adventureland shows how that first real teenage job opens a whole new world – one where you interact with adults as peers, and meet people of different backgrounds beyond those that inhabited your small circle of school and neighborhood. This rite of passage was sink or swim with no Mom or Dad to help, and often you had to grow up quick. This concept almost seems quaint now – do teenagers even get jobs anymore?
Bonus: Great supporting roles from Ryan Reynolds, Kristen Wiig, and Bill Hader.
DJ: If I am going to go to a ”Land” starring Jesse Eisenberg, I’m going to Zombieland. Just kidding, this is a pretty good film with great music. It’s been awhile since I have seen this, but I have to agree my first teenage job got me out of my shell. I was like a different person than I was at school and it gave me those varied experiences.
Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
Not an 80s film you say? Sure, this is a bit of a departure, but the 80s setting isn’t just for PG-13 films about first jobs and first loves. Alongside all those kids “coming of age”, there were adults living, struggling and even dying in this decade. In most of the kid-centric films about the 80s, adults are an afterthought, lucky to get slightly better than the “wah-wah-wah-wah” Peanuts treatment. Admittedly, you could drive down to Texas today and find somebody who looks like Matthew McConaughey’s character, Rod Woodruff, probably driving the same 1982 car, but this story starts in 1985, as the AIDS epidemic began to dominate the headlines. It’s striking to see Woodruff not only battle his disease, but also build his underground business using a landline and flying all over the world to meet contacts to get his non-FDA approved drugs. Being an entrepreneur was a lot more work before the internet and smartphones. I don’t have to convince you of the quality of this film, as its Oscar wins and nominations are testimony to that. This film provides a different answer to the question: “What was it like to live in the 80s as an adult?”
Bonus: If you hated Jared Leto’s Joker in Suicide Squad, his award-winning performance will remind you of his amazing acting potential in the right role.
DJ: Allright, allright, allright…honestly I have not seen this, always seemed depressing, I am sure it’s well acted and should put it on my list.
MG: It’s heavy material but I wouldn’t call it depressing. McConaughey has been hammy in other films, but in this one he’s compelling to watch.
Stranger Things (2016)
This Netflix series pulled off the feat of fully embracing the glory of the mid-80’s, while simultaneously seeming to avoid all the clichéd cultural touchstones. Much has been written about the 80s movies that influenced the series, but I contend that even post-80’s films/TV shaped how this series was made. For example, I see as much Freaks and Geeks in here as I do The Goonies. What also struck me was the way the show runners captured the look and feel of 80s films. The lighting, the film stock, camera angles – it all made me feel like I was watching ET or Poltergeist in 1982. It was an inspired choice to use 80s icons Winona Ryder and Matthew Modine in adult roles, and they were appropriately cast, not just there for cheesy tie-ins. Above all, hats off to the casting agent, series directors, and actors for making the central kid roles both believable and compelling.
Bonus: The “poster” for this series is modeled after the work of Drew Struzan who did so many 80s movie posters for huge film series’ like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Back To The Future.
DJ: This hooked me from the beginning although the story was just ok. It’s not the story that got me it’s the intense sensation that I am watching a show from the 80s in the 80s. This could be one of those 80s movies based on a Stephen King novel like Cujo or Firestarter or something completely different like War Games or Cloak and Dagger. It was well worth the time investment, curious how they will make a second season work and keep the nostalgia fresh.
Ok so for mine, I have a dramedy, a sitcom, and a 2016 movie. All with similar themes, set in the 80s and told from very different viewpoints and experiences.
Freaks and Geeks (1999)
The one thing that connects my top three outside of being set in the 80s is they all possess heart. Freaks and Geeks was the brainchild of Paul Feig, most recognizable for directing Bridesmaids and the rebooted Ghostbusters. He, along with a creative team that included Judd Apatow and Jake Kasdan, took experiences he had in high school to create a realistic high school dramedy. It was the first realistic view of 80s life that wasn’t created in the 80s. This is a show that was ahead of its time, a show today that would not have been canceled, and at the least moved to Netflix or some other streaming outlet. It was a critical success but could not muster enough viewers. It not only jump-started the careers of its creators but Jason Segel, Ben Foster, Seth Rogan, and James Franco as well. The fans of the “stoner-movie” genre can thank Paul Feig. The pilot episode has references to Star Wars and Caddyshack and music by Styx, Van Halen, Kenny Loggins and the blistering theme song “Bad Reputation” from Joan Jett. Being closer to the geek crowd I can somewhat relate to what Sam, Neal, and Bill are going through, with girls and bullies. Who hasn’t pined for a girl in high school who may have been out of their league? It’s a quirky show that is relatable if you grew up in the 80s. For example, in gym class, they play a version of dodgeball called “Smear the Weird”, which is not what it was really called. I remember those experiences well. It was a poignant show that captured the realities of growing up while using humor.
Bonus: Biff from Back to the Future is the gym teacher!
MG: I really like you picking this, because it’s not a typical 80’s choice. Being set in 1980-81, it’s kind of an alternative take, because there are some overt 80’s references (Atari, Betamax, George Bush visiting the school) but the show’s creators also remind us that every decade takes time to evolve (example: I loved when the geeks watch a porn film – and it’s actually a film they run through a projector.) In the mid-season episodes, it felt like it got bogged down in drug-related storylines and stoner-talk, which I’m guessing didn’t help this show become a family favorite, but it ended strong. I agree, if Netflix had been popular in 1999 this show would have lasted more than 1 season, and it would have been fun to see these kids move further into the decade. (Extra Bonus: the “Michael Jackson dude” from The Wedding Singer has a cameo as the convenience store clerk that sells the geeks the non-alcoholic beer keg.)
The Goldbergs (2013-)
“When it comes to my childhood I may not always remember exactly when something happened or exactly who was there, but I do know it was 1980-something, and it was awesome!” – Adam Goldberg
Another TV show but this time it’s a sitcom, The Goldbergs is funny, filled with nostalgia, and avoids the 80s clichés. This is a difficult feat to achieve, That 80s Show anyone? The Goldbergs is not unique as it almost always has a moral or at least a happy ending, but it’s an entertaining 22 minutes especially if you grew up in the 80s. This has a Wonder Years feel to it, also with narration (Thank you, Patton Oswalt!). Whereas Freaks and Geeks took place in a specific year, the main character Adam Goldberg will tell you at the start of each episode, “It was 1980 something…” This device allows creator Adam F. Goldberg to explore the whole decade and not be tied down to the specifics of a year. Goldberg, like Feig, uses real experiences, specifically family and home life. Goldberg had videotaped much of his childhood and occasionally creates it shot for shot. Episodes often use 80s pop culture as a driver of an episode such as The Goonies, Knightrider, The Beastie Boys, and of course Star Wars. Music is also a driving force of the show, hearing lost gems such as John Waite’s Change or Joey Scarbury’s Theme to the Greatest American Hero anchor an episode. It’s never going to win awards or change the world, but it’s a fun show with heart.
Bonus: The Goldbergs is filled with 80s Easter Eggs, my favorite, Martin Starr who is Bill in Freaks and Geeks shows up as a video store clerk.
MG: I’ve only watched this show once, and a few bits and pieces before Modern Family. It seemed fine, it just never made it into my viewing rotation.
Sing Street (2016)
Darren: “What does happy sad even mean? How can we be both things? It makes no sense.”
Conor: “It means that I’m stuck in this shithole full of morons and rapists and bullies, and I’m gonna deal with it, okay? It’s just how life is. I’m gonna try and accept this and get on with it, and make some art.”
So while I can relate to Freaks and Geeks and The Goldbergs, the 2016 film Sing Street takes place in Dublin and is about a boy who ends up at a shithole school and starts a band to impress a girl and is not anything I had experienced. Like the other two though it does have an emotional impact I do relate to, trying to impress a girl. Sing Street avoids the “clichéd” 80s which is great, I lived it, and not everyone wore fluorescent colors or had leg warmers, or had one glove. I compare it to movies set in Boston, not all Boston accents sound like the Kennedy’s. The movie is one of my favorites of 2016. It also has the rare success of using the music of the 80s and showcasing eight original songs that sound like they could have been made in the 80s. It works, all of it. The selection of the 80s classic is all over the place and that’s good, from Motorhead to Hall and Oates, to my favorite Spandau Ballet song “Gold”. This movie has a fun story and has great performances. More people need to view this film, I am hoping it will gain some steam now that it has a Golden Globe nomination.
Bonus: Dedicated to brothers everywhere and hey that’s Littlefinger as Conor’s father.
MG: I loved so much about this film, it will be hard to keep my comments brief. I was friends with two brothers who came over from the UK in 1980, and I couldn’t help but think of times with them when watching this film – stories they told me, their lingo, the music they introduced me to. The first video that captured our imagination wasn’t Rio, but it was “Hungry Like The Wolf” by Duran Duran. I laughed at the first video the kids make in Sing Street, because it reminded me of the “arty” stuff we used to do with my Dad’s camcorder, so heavily influenced by a steady diet of Friday Night Videos and MTV. Being a kid in the 80’s meant feeling like anything was possible, and we were fueled by our dreams. The brilliant fantasy prom sequence at the end of the film is a great metaphor for this, but then the film reminds us that even though most of our dreams were just fantasy, the subsequent reality didn’t need to be a letdown. We could still enjoy the imperfect world we would inhabit and grow into, and it also wasn’t a bad idea to occasionally take off our rose-colored glasses when looking at our collective past.