By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 11, 2020)
I thought I might dust off my VHS collection, put on a skinny tie and curate an 80s sleeper festival for you this evening. No reason for it, although the possibility exists that 7 months into the pandemic hunker-down, I am running low on novel “theme night” ideas. Anyway, here are 10 gems from that decade that I think deserve a little more love…
Comfort and Joy – This quirky1984 trifle is from Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth (Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero). An amiable Glasgow radio personality (Bill Paterson) is dumped by his girlfriend on Christmas Eve, throwing him into an existential crisis. Soon after lamenting to his skeptical GM that he wants to do something more “important” than his chirpy morning show, serendipity drops him into the middle a of a hot scoop-a “war” between two rival ice-cream dairies.
The movie is chock full of Forsyth’s patented low-key anarchy and wry one-liners. As a former morning DJ, I can tell you that the scenes depicting “Dickie Bird” doing his show are quite authentic, which is rare on the screen. One caveat: it might take days to get that ice cream van’s amplified tape loop out of your head (“Cheerio, folks!”).
Dreamchild – This unique 1985 film from director Gavin Millar blends speculative biography with fantasy to delve into the psychology behind the creation of writer Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s book Alice in Wonderland. Scripted by Dennis Potter, the story is set in 1932 New York City.
Carroll’s muse, the now 80-year-old Alice Liddell Hargreaves (a wonderful Coral Brown) has traveled from her native England with her young assistant (Nicola Cowper) to participate in a celebration of Reverend Charles L. Dodgson’s (aka Lewis Carroll’s) centenary. Prim and proper Mrs. Hargreaves is perplexed by the fuss the Americans are making over her visit. As she gathers her thoughts for a speech she has been invited to give in Dodgson’s honor, she takes stock of her childhood association with the Reverend (Ian Holm, excellent as always), which leads to an unexpected and bittersweet epiphany.
Anyone familiar with Dennis Potter’s work will not be surprised to learn that there are some dark and uncomfortable themes at work here; that said, there is also much sweetness and poignancy. Amelia Shankley delivers a nuanced performance of a quality well beyond her chronological age as the young Alice, and the late great Jim Henson works his special magic with the creature creations for the inspired fantasy sequences.
Heartbreakers – In this 1984 drama, director-writer Bobby Roth delivers an absorbing character study about two 30-something pals who are both going through big transitions in their personal and professional lives. Peter Coyote is excellent as a petulant man-child named Blue, a starving artist who specializes in quasi-pornographic, fetishistic female portraiture (his character is based in part on artist Robert Blue).
Blue is nurturing a broken heart; his long-time girlfriend (Kathryn Harrold), tired of waiting for him to grow up, has recently dumped him. Blue’s friend Eli (Nick Mancuso) is a quintessential Yuppie who lives in a dream bachelor pad that boasts a lofty view of the L.A. Basin. Despite being financially secure, Eli is also feeling emotionally unfulfilled. With his male model looks and shiny toys, he has no problem with hookups; he just can’t find The One (yes, I know…how many nights of empty sex with an endless parade of beautiful women can one guy stand?).
Just when the commiserating duo’s love lives are looking hopeless, they both meet The One. Unfortunately, she is the same One (Carole Laure). The plot thickens, and the friendship is about to be sorely tested. Formulaic as it sounds, Roth’s film is a sharply observed look at modern love (and sex) in the Big City. Max Gail (best known for his role on TV’s Barney Miller) is great here, as is Carol Wayne (sadly, this is her last film).
Light of Day – From off the streets of Cleveland comes…that rare Paul Schrader film that doesn’t culminate in a blood-spattered catharsis. Rather, this 1987-character study concerns a pair of blue-collar siblings (Michael J. Fox and Joan Jett) struggling to make a name for themselves in the music biz.
Jett, naturally, does her own singing and playing; but Fox and the other actors portraying “The Barbusters” do so as well. That fact, coupled with the no-nonsense performances, adds up to one of the most realistic narrative films I’ve seen about what it’s really like to eke out a living in the rock’n’roll trenches; i.e., these guys actually look and sound like a bar band. Gena Rowlands is a standout as Jett and Fox’s mother (she is also the most “Schrader-esque” character). Bruce Springsteen penned the title song (“Born in the USA” was originally slated but the Boss wisely decided to keep that little number for himself).
Liquid Sky – A diminutive, parasitic alien (who seems to have a particular delectation for NYC club kids, models and performance artists) lands on an East Village rooftop and starts mainlining off the limbic systems of junkies and sex addicts…right at the moment that they, you know…reach the maximum peak of pleasure center stimulation (I suppose that makes the alien a dopamine junkie?). Just don’t think about the science too hard.
The main attraction here is the inventive photography and the fascinatingly bizarre performance (or non-performance) by (co-screen writer) Anne Carlisle, who tackles two roles-a female fashion model who becomes the alien’s primary host, and a male model. Writer-director Slava Zsukerman also co-wrote the electronic music score for his 1982 curio. Deeply weird, yet eminently watchable (I’ve seen it more times than I’m willing to confess in mixed company).
Sammie and Rosie Get Laid – I think that the thing I adore most about this criminally underappreciated 1987 dramedy from British director Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Launderette, Prick up Your Ears, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, High Fidelity) is that it is everything wingnuts fear and despise the most: Pro-feminist, gay-positive, anti-fascist, pro-multiculturalism, anti-colonialist and Marxist-friendly. In other words, they don’t make ‘em like this anymore.
At first glance, Sammy (Ayub Khan-Din) and Rosie (Frances Barber) are just your average middle-class London couple. However, their lifestyle is unconventional. They have taken a libertine approach to their marriage; giving each other an unlimited pass to take lovers on the side (the in-joke here is that Sammy and Rosie seemingly “get laid” with everyone but each other). In the meantime, the couple’s neighborhood is turning into a war zone; ethnic and political unrest has led to nightly riots (this is unmistakably Thatcher’s England; Frears bookends his film with ironic excerpts from her speeches).
When Sammy’s estranged father (Shashi Kapoor), a former Indian government official haunted by ghosts from his political past, returns to London after a long absence, everything goes topsy-turvy for the couple. Wonderful performances abound (including the great Claire Bloom, and Fine Young Cannibals lead singer Roland Gift), buoyed by Frears’ fine direction and Hanif Kureishi’s literate script.
Stormy Monday – Sean Bean stars as a restless young drifter who blows into Newcastle and falls in with a local jazz club owner (Sting). About the same time, a shady American businessman with mob ties (Tommy Lee Jones) arrives to muscle in on a land development deal, accompanied by his ex-mistress/current P.A. (Melanie Griffith). As romantic sparks fly between Bean and Griffith, the mobster puts the thumbscrews to the club owner, who stands in the way of the development scheme by refusing to sell. Things get complicated. Writer-director Mike Figgis’ tightly scripted 1988 Brit-noir (his feature debut) delivers the goods on every front. Gorgeously photographed by Roger Deakins.
Tokyo Pop – This 1988 film is a likable entry in the vein of other 80s films like Starstruck, Breaking Glass, Desperately Seeking Susan, Smithereens and The Fabulous Stains). The fluffy premise is buoyed by star Carrie Hamilton’s winning screen presence
Hamilton (who does her own singing) plays a struggling wannabe rock star who buys a one-way ticket to Tokyo at the invitation of a girlfriend. Unfortunately, her flaky friend has flown the coop, and our heroine is stranded in a strange land. “Fish out of water” misadventures ensue, including cross-cultural romance with all the usual complications.
For music fans, it’s a fun time capsule of the late 80s Japanese music scene, and the colorful cinematography nicely captures the neon-lit energy of Tokyo nightlife. Director Fran Rubel Kuzui later helmed the 1992 film version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Sadly, Hamilton (Carol Burnett’s daughter) died of cancer at age 38 in 2002.
Wish You Were Here – David Leland’s 1987 comedy-drama centers on a headstrong 16-year-old girl coming of age in post WW 2 England. The story is loosely based on the real-life exploits of British madam Cynthia Payne (Leland also collaborated as screenwriter with director Terry Jones on the film Personal Services, which starred Julie Walters and was based on Payne’s later exploits).
Vivacious teenager Emily Lloyd makes an astounding debut as pretty, potty-mouthed “Linda”, whose exhibitionist tendencies and sexual antics cause her reserved widower father and younger sister to walk around in a perpetual state of public embarrassment.
With a taut script and precise performances, the film breezes along on a deft roller coaster of belly-laugh hilarity and genuine, bittersweet emotion. Excellent support from the entire cast, especially from Thom Bell, who skillfully manages to find the sympathetic humanity in an otherwise vile character. It’s unfortunate that Lloyd never broke big, going on to appear in only a few unremarkable projects and then dropping off the radar.
Word, Sound, and Power – This 1980 documentary by Jeremiah Stein clocks in at just over an hour but is the best film I’ve seen about roots reggae music and Rastafarian culture. Barely screened upon its original theatrical run and long coveted by music geeks as a Holy Grail until its belated DVD release in 2008 (when I was finally able to loosen my death grip on the sacred, fuzzy VHS copy that I had taped off of USA’s Night Flight back in the early 80s), it’s a wonderful time capsule of a particularly fertile period for the Kingston music scene.
Stein interviews key members of The Soul Syndicate Band, a group of studio players who were the Jamaican version of The Wrecking Crew; they backed reggae superstars like Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley, Burning Spear, and the recently departed Toots Hibbert (to name but a few). Beautifully photographed and edited, with outstanding live performances by the Syndicate. Musical highlights include “Mariwana”, “None Shall Escape the Judgment”, and a spirited acoustic version of “Harvest Uptown”.