Films are products of their time; inspiration, style, politics, fashion and music indicative of the sensibilities of the period. But some films are so “of the moment” that they could not have been made at any other time, such is their period-centric motivation and sense of place and time defining character, conflict and drama. Here then are the best 1980s films about the eighties.
10. Tapeheads (Fishman, USA, 1988)
Misguided and disjointed, Tapeheads is one of those cult 1980s movies held dear by its admittedly small group of devotees and largely forgotten by those around during its release in 1988. But there are a couple of reasons why it’s a perfect product of its time, not least the quick-fix formulas that aspired but largely failed to deliver a hit for its stars John Cusack and Tim Robbins. Aside from building from a premise of hopeful “rags” seeking “riches”, the film evokes the spirit of MTV as a couple of best friends lose their jobs and begin a video production company. The holy grail for them is to get their work on the Music TV channel, an indication of the power, prevalence and influence of MTV in the eighties.
9. Desperately Seeking Susan (Seidelman, USA, 1985)
Desperately Seeking Susan isn’t a great film but it is a great example of 1980s cinema depicting 1980s American pop culture. It’s distinguished by one of the decade’s fashion and music icons – Madonna – who plays the eponymous title role, a girl who is obsessed over by Rosanna Arquette’s bored suburban housewife Roberta Glass. More than anything, Desperately Seeking Susan, as well as being a platform for the Like A Virgin singer to stretch her acting wings, captures the underground punk and new wave scenes of the period, pop music movements that were popularised by performers like Madonna. Her image also became the style framework imitated by many young girls and women at the time, something Roberta Glass comes to personify and mirror in the film when she begins copying her enigmatic idol.
8. What Have I Done To Deserve This? (Almodóvar, Spain, 1984)
Spaniard Pedro Almodóvar came to prominence in the English-speaking world in 1988 with Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown but it was his 1984 effort What Have I Done To Deserve This that is most striking when we consider the best eighties movies about eighties life. Although the writer-director hasn’t always enjoyed the best relationship with Spanish audiences, his films distinguished by his own sense of Spanish-ness, his 1984 effort showcases an emerging cultural and social shift in his homeland.
La Movida, a movement that came alive following the death of dictator Franco, realigned Spanish cultural identity by countering archaic conservative values and the fascist tendencies of Francoism to something akin to the swinging 60s in Britain and rock n roll indulgence of 1970s America. Chiefly, however, La Movida, which originated in Madrid before spreading to other cities, represents post-Franco Spain in the 1980s.
The mere existence of Almodóvar’s film is an artefact in itself, a freedom of expression indicative of turning ideological tides. Outlandish and subversive, the writer-director seeks to offer an alternative to the repressive role Spanish women had endured under Franco. The newly liberated filmmaker uses his platform to comment on and criticise topics once off the table, notably sex, drugs, homosexuality, gender identity and political critique.
Almodóvar does not hold back. Firstly giving up the stage to a female protagonist, he proceeds to see this bored suburban housewife bludgeon her husband to death after refusing to iron his shirt and causing a heated argument. She then sells her youngest son to a homosexual dentist. There’s a tangible eagerness to aspire to new, socially liberated, democratically open-minded, eclectic values. The film is therefore an ideal document of 1980s counterculture Spain.
7. Class of 1984 (Lester, USA/Canada, 1982) & River’s Edge (Hunter, USA, 1986)
Characterised by a gritty, leather-clad murkiness distinguished by an urban expanse daubed in graffiti, Mark Lester’s sobering account of high school problems represents a reaction to a spike in violent crime. It sees Perry King’s music teacher Andrew Norris take a new job at a troubled school. Despite threats from youth gangs, and with little help from the school’s governing body, he takes matters into his own hands, eager to seek out and dismiss the troublemakers.
Tackling the problem isn’t the focus of Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge. Another disconcerting teen drama, the film is more concerned with the underlining social context transforming teenage innocence into anger. There’s a more meditative approach to the problem of teen crime in River’s Edge, showcasing an underlining apathy to life and ambition that has desensitised a group of young people to the sort of moral obligations you’d expect in a civilised society.
6. Rocky IV (Stallone, USA, 1985)
Arriving right in the middle of the 1980s, Sly Stallone’s fourth instalment of his hit boxing franchise is a perfect distillation of the period’s geopolitics as well as its cultural quirks, fashion and music. It’s also representative of the high concept movie, a type of film boasting a premise able to be summarised in a few words; pulling in audiences with attention-grabbing taglines, star power, and broadly appealing, simplified plots. For Rocky IV it was all about pitching East against West, the great working class hero Rocky against the seemingly superhuman, Soviet super weapon Ivan Drago.
This was a time when the Berlin Wall still existed, when tensions between America and Russia remained strained, when the Cold War still simmered, when the threat of nuclear conflict felt ominously imminent. Rocky IV took the push-pull relationship between democratic, capitalist America and communist Russia and turned the animosity and angst into a boxing match.
Babylon (Rosso, UK, 1980)
Written by Martin Stellman, who is perhaps best known for scripting 1979’s rock n roll classic Quadrophenia, Babylon was one of the first and still one of the best films about West Indian culture in London. As with Quadrophenia, music plays an important role in the film as defined by its young protagonists and their DJ-ing ensemble or “sound system”. The group, made up of disc jockeys, MCs and engineers playing predominantly reggae and its derivatives, is fronted by Blue (Brinsley Forde), a musician who makes ends meet by working as a car mechanic for a racist boss (played by Mel Smith).
Director Franco Rosso, an Italian who emigrated to the UK with his parents aged 8, has often focused on the immigrant struggle through his work before and since Babylon (mainly for TV). His experiences growing up in London as an immigrant himself conspire to make this dramatisation of black youth culture in the late 1970s and early 1980s a stark reminder of institutional and general societal racism.
Bleak in nature, Babylon does however have a lighter side at times. For example, there’s the welcome depiction of how minority groups cope with inherent division in society (a sense of community spirit, stronger ties between friends and family, the prevalence of cultural identity through art, in this case reggae and the sound system tradition). But the “us and them” ignorance that fuels the racism, and the influence of wider economic instability, is also present. And it’s that which provides Babylon’s most provocative moments, showcasing early 1980s Britain as a place where a wonderfully diverse multicultural identity is hamstrung by anger and suspicion on all sides.
5. The Firm (Clarke, UK, 1989)
For some in Britain, the 1980s will be remembered as the period of the football hooligan; violent young men muddying the beautiful game’s image during a period when English football endured more than its fair share of tragedy and unwelcoming notoriety. It wasn’t just the hooligans tarnishing football’s image, the Bradford stadium fire of 1985 killed 56 because of antiquated stands that were not fit for purpose, and the Hillsborough disaster four years later saw 96 killed as a result of overcrowding due to police failures.
For those not directly affected by the aforementioned tragedies, from casual fans to die hard supporters, it’s the Heysel Stadium disaster that sticks in the memory. In the 1985 European Cup Final between Juventus and Liverpool, 39 people were killed and around 600 injured when hostilities between rival supporters turned violent. When Liverpool fans charged across a neutral area of the stadium, Juventus fans were pushed back against a concrete retaining wall. Here, many were crushed before the wall eventually collapsed. The event saw English football clubs banned from UEFA competitions, meaning no more European football during the second half of the 1980s. It has been described as the “the darkest hour in the history of the UEFA competitions” and the highest profile instance of English football hooliganism.
The problem was highlighted in Alan Clarke’s 1989 film The Firm starring Gary Oldman. A violent, uncompromising and characteristically bleak piece of social realism, the director was keen to redirect attention away from football and onto the perpetrators of hooliganism. The film suggests that football is the victim. These angry young men “hitting each other” for entertainment is indicative of their pursuit of happiness – a “buzz” says Oldman’s master hooligan Bexy – outside of their domestic normality and largely affluent suburban existence. It’s actually quite fascinating to see another side of the 1980s “yuppie”, one getting his kicks out of bloodying the nose of his fellow man.
Cleverly Clarke shows us very little actual football aside from Bexy playing for his amateur team when a rival gang leader (the excellent Phil Davis) drives across the field after covering a fellow hooligan’s car with graffiti. Violence is not a symptom of football but tribalism and a sense of identity certainly is. What’s striking is that football hooligans of the late 1980s are depicted here as suit and tie-wearing family men who organise their fights at lavish hotels not skinheads with a racist agenda.
Rightly not offering an underlying cause, The Firm does however offer some interesting ideas. Perhaps, unlike those poor, penniless folk on their council estates, who turn their anger to authority and the government thanks to being kicked by recession, privatisation and a lack of opportunity, affluent family men who have found financial and personal success as well as – broadly speaking – happiness, must manifest a villain to target their aggression?
4. Working Girl (Nichols, USA, 1988)
Similar to Wall Street, another great eighties movie about the eighties, Working Girl is set in New York’s financial district and once again finds its protagonist in search of career satisfaction by scaling the corporate ladder. Fashion plays its part in defining this very eighties film. “Big” hair and perms, shoulder-padded suits, overdone eye-shadow and pointed high heels separate the women from the men in their power ties. But as is evident in Mike Nichols’ exceptional “girl power” film, the bold fashion statements of the protagonists at the heart of its story mimic the aspirational ambition of both sexes.
Whereas Wall Street took a cynical look at the corporate world, Working Girl embraces it as a stage where hard work pays off, where women can find personal achievement on the same playing field as men. That is despite the goalposts being set further back for them. Taking a female perspective, Working Girl shifts the male-dominated power balance to Melanie Griffith’s eager-eyed Tess McGill.
3. Wall Street (Stone, USA, 1987)
When people consider the best films about the eighties – the films that really evoke memories of the era, the fashion, the mentality of aspirational toe-steppers on the way up – most would quickly think: Wall Street. Everything about it screams “the eighties” – particularly New York City in the 1980s – from the dark pinstriped suits, shoulder pads, fat ties and greased-back hair to its setting within the city’s financial heartland at the height of “greed is good” Reagan-era America.
The legacy of that period, notably the materialistic sensibilities of go-getting yuppies, is personified by unscrupulous corporate raider Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) whose shady ethics mirror a growing sense of narcissistic self-worth as the financial world splits into two distinct groups – those on the bottom and those who have stepped on everyone else to get to the top.
If you wanted a time capsule of the era, Oliver Stone’s dissection of corporate greed in eighties New York City is perfect. Made in 1987 but set in 1985, Wall Street takes places at the heart of a period noted for its materialistic excess. A reaction to the poor financial health of America in the early part of Reagan’s presidential term, the mostly young men who found riches playing the stock markets, driven by an eagerness to make lots of money, probably had their fire fuelled by a knowledge of financial hardship previously, either directly or via their parents.
Branded “yuppies”, they are personified by Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen’s money-hungry corporate raiders in the film, products of banking deregulation which freed the market to make more and more unethical moves.
That led to high profile cases of insider trading which allowed the unscrupulous Wall Street “player” to manipulate the stock market for their own financial gain, a phenomenon captured by Stone through a veteran corporate killer (Gordon Gecko) and the up-and-comer (Bud Fox); the teacher and the protégé.
2. My Beautiful Laundrette (Frears, UK, 1985) & Rita, Sue And Bob Too (Clarke, UK, 1987)
A couple of films from the mid-1980s that offer insight into “Thatcher’s Britain”, one based in the south (London) and one in the north (Bradford), My Beautiful Laundrette and Rita, Sue And Bob Too share thematic similarities with the working class struggle seen in Mike Leigh’s Meantime and High Hopes (1983 and 1988 respectively) but add other dimensions. For example, Stephen Frears’ 1985 film, which was originally made for television before becoming an internationally acclaimed theatrical hit, tackles a couple of subjects once generally considered off limits.
Ostensibly evoking the principles of Thatcher’s self-betterment regime, witnessed most strikingly by Nasser Ali’s (Saeed Jaffrey) entrepreneurial flare, My Beautiful Laundrette dares to tackle the taboo subjects of homosexuality and interracial romance in the relationship struck up by Omar Ali (Gordon Warnecke) and Johnny Burfoot (Daniel Day-Lewis). From the pen of talented British playwright Hanif Kureishi who earned a New York Film Critics Circle Award for his screenplay, it’s one of the first UK theatrical releases to detail the exploits of thriving Indian and Pakistani communities, first and second generation immigrants, many of whom finding financial and personal success in 1980s Britain.
One of the consequences of this cultural flux, coinciding with a period of recession and financial depravity for many families across the country, was a growing antagonism from the far right (seen in the rise of “skinhead” gangs and the fascist National Front movement) and underlying stereotyping rearing its ugly head through both overt and covert racism. Alan Clarke’s Made In Britain is a provocative reminder of this thanks in part to Tim Roth’s unforgettably ferocious performance). What’s fascinating about My Beautiful Laundrette, and to a certain extent, Rita, Sue and Bob Too, is how differences of race, although present, become secondary to the romantic entanglements of the film’s main players.
Both these films present interracial relationships with a refreshing sense of normalcy. What’s most striking about My Beautiful Laundrette is that it extends this commonplace framing to homosexuality. With the A.I.D.S virus making headlines in the middle 1980s, and it wrongly being labelled a gay man’s disease, it makes Frears and Kureishi’s efforts even more provocative. The film is all the better for it.
Rita, Sue and Bob Too is another eighties British film that, like most of the period’s notable indigenous cinema, was sparked to life by the politically-charged, culturally in-tune motives of its director. In this case it’s Alan Clarke who, along with Rita, Sue and Bob Too writer Andrea Dunbar, recognised that you didn’t need to dramatise contemporary life as much as portray the dramas of actually living it. Noteworthy for being one of only three feature length films Clarke made for theatrical release (much of his admittedly stellar screen work was done for TV), Rita, Sue and Bob Too crucially distinguishes itself from My Beautiful Laundrette’s backdrop – the comparatively thriving city of London in England’s south – with the downtrodden estates of northern city Bradford.
You could argue the presence of a working class and a non-working underclass in Clarke’s comparison between the two council estate teenagers and the more affluent family they babysit for. Inspired by screenwriter Andrea Dunbar’s own experiences of growing up in the city, the film proves to be an evocative and uncomfortable window on northern Britain in the mid-1980s that also manages to be endearing by capturing the qualities of the human spirit in spite of hardship. And, given that its tagline is “Thatcher’s Britain with her knickers down”, you know it’s going to be very funny at times.
1. High Hopes & Meantime (Leigh, UK, 1983/1988)
In the 1980s, writer-director Mike Leigh was an angry man. In has recently talked about the benefit of hindsight when looking back at his work during the decade, only now openly acknowledging the politicisation of his defiantly social-conscious films. He’s an intelligent guy, he knows what he was doing, but admits, at the time, his creative juices were fuelled by anger.
What that indignation achieves is a pair of films that provide acerbic documents of 1980s Britain during Margaret Thatcher’s reign. Both Meantime (a 1983 TV film screened on Channel 4 after debuting at the London Film Festival) and High Hopes (1988) showcase, across a five-year span, working class dissatisfaction, alienation and disenfranchisement during a period of recession and historically high employment.
Meantime emits the stench of sink estates as generations of jobless lose sight of any aspiration they might have had, the government’s dismantlement of industry and strangled public spending personified through a family on the dole. This contrasts with the widening gap between the working and middle class. This is further highlighted in High Hopes’ depiction of Phil Daniels’ working class socialist and the varying social situations of those closest to him. For instance, his Tory-voting council tenant mother, his social-climbing sister, and the yuppie couple who have bought and renovated a former social housing townhouse next door to his mother with the intention of selling it for profit.
Both present wonderful time capsules of 1980s Britain from the perspective of those hit hardest by recession, unemployment and public cuts and those reaping the benefits of Thatcher’s economic ideology, notably the privatisation of public assets including national industries and council housing. The enduring qualities of both films are revealed through Leigh’s capacity to find a comic undertone despite troubling circumstances, often focusing on the make-up of personal relationships and how they are affected by the wider social and economic environment of the moment.
Over to you: what are your fave eighties films about the 1980s?