The Up Too Late Film Club #1: Fair is fair! (or, How I learned to stop thinking of Helen Slater just as Supergirl and embraced the awesomeness of The Legend of Billie Jean)

True to form, the VHS cover is way better
than the movie poster.
The "youth in revolt" genre of film was already well-worn territory by 1985, and most of the movies under this umbrella tended to fall into one of two categories: Hollywood utterly failing to understand what it was that motivates teenagers in the first place so that the revolt in question seems vague or misdirected; or Hollywood pandering to adults' worst fears of "kids today" because you know how they are.

That's not to say that all of these films were bad, per se, and even the most wrongheaded of them still possess a certain entertaining charm (like my favorite example of the latter category, Wild in the Streets, in which the youth vote sweeps a rock star into White House and everyone over 30 is rounded up into camps where they're force-fed LSD).  But even then, you can't help but feel that someone somewhere missed the point in a really big way, which is why The Legend of Billie Jean is so powerful above and beyond it's cheesily entertaining mid-1980s way.

No matter what kind of kid you were, no matter what area or background you hailed from, it's probably a safe bet that one of your biggest desires back then was for the adults in your family, community, and life to take you and your problems seriously once in a while, and that's what drives this entire movie.  The plot is spurred on by Billie Jean's desire to get a fairly basic form of justice - $608 in compensation for her brother's trashed motor scooter - but that's just the Joseph Campbell-style "call to adventure" here (yeah, I'm dropping Joseph Campbell in a discussion of a Helen Slater movie that isn't Supergirl... I contain multitudes).  As Billie Jean puts it, fair is fair.  But we soon see the scooter is just the tip of the iceberg, representing so many other problems affecting not only her life, but the lives of so many others around her.  No one takes her seriously because she's just a teenager; people initially seem to side with sleazy would-be rapist Mr. Pyatt because he's a local business owner and she's a girl from a trailer park; and if Pyatt's son and his friends, the date rapiest bros in town, are giving her a hard time, well, she is a very pretty girl after all...

It's injustice after injustice, and all because of her age, gender, and address, so it's no surprise that when events escalate to make Billie Jean and her friends outlaws, that $608 comes to represent so much more.  "Fair is fair" becomes a rallying cry for kids everywhere and Billie Jean herself becomes a folk hero, inspiring her peers even as she frightens most adults (except for the One Good Cop played by Peter Coyote who realizes he did wrong by her in Act One and may have inadvertently set the whole thing in motion).  So although her Joan of Arc-inspired makeover and the rapidly-growing underground movement to support and protect her may be seem heavy-handed, there's enough authenticity under the surface that you can buy into the whole thing.  I did, anyway.

The script is also very prescient in regards to the way the news media handles the story of Billie Jean throughout the movie, alternately shaping and being shaped by public opinion, lionizing and vilifying her in equal parts.  Again, it's handled in a very over-the-top fashion, but the kernel of truth at the center of it makes it easy to buy into, and it helps sell the Joan of Arc allusions at the center of Billie Jean's mid-film turning point; as film buff / co-conspirator / willing hostage / love interest Lloyd reminds us, Joan was burned as a heretic by the very people she swore to defend. If there's one thing people love, it's creating a hero to worship and destroy in equal measure. 

Make no mistake, this is a very odd little movie, full of the usual garish 80s fashions, scenery chewing villainy, dodgy Southern accents, and the most weirdly positive attitude toward menstruation ever, but it is also solidly entertaining and anthemic in the best possible ways (the latter, especially, driven by the soundtrack, featuring a great chase scene set to "Rebel Yell" and, of course, Pat Benatar's "Invincible").  So much could and should be wrong, but the whole thing just feels right.  Fair is fair.

1 comment:

Matthew E said...

One of my all time favourites, and also a great GenX movie.

"Where. Is. Billie. Jean?!"

"Everywhere!"