The 1980s were a crap time for politics and economics but in terms of entertainment, the decade was responsible for some great movies, especially those geared toward kids and teens. Most ’80s movies like Back To The Future and Breakfast Club are well known, then there’s the second-tier which includes not-so-famous-but-still-recognisable stuff such as Flight Of The Navigator and WarGames. But then there’s the section below that; films that have now become cult classics because the mainstream were either unaware or too snobbish to watch them when they were first released. The Legend Of Billie Jean is one of these forgotten gems; it has nothing to do with the classic Michael Jackson song, but it’s a fantastic teen film that’s unfortunately underexposed and underrated, even to this day. Starring Helen Slater (Secret Of My Success, Ruthless People) and an early role for Christian Slater (Heathers, Young Guns) (no relation by the way) the story is about sister and brother Billie Jean Davy and Binx Davy played by Helen and Christian respectively. After Binx’ beloved Honda Elite scooter is vandalised by local bullies, Jean asks the alpha bully’s father for $608 to repair it. It seems however, that being a prick runs in their family as the dad, Mr. Pyatt, will only hand over the money in exchange for sexual favours, which of course leads to refusal, and ends in an unintended shooting. Billie Jean, Binx, and her two friends then have to go on the run but infamy and fame go hand-in-hand with being an outlaw…
The Legend Of Billie Jean is all about how role models and heroes are made. Like Alex Rogan in The Last Starfighter, Billie Jean lives in a trailer park and isn’t someone who anyone would look up to. But, as she stands-up for what’s right and becomes a fugitive in the process, she becomes an inspiration to all teenagers and is even helped by them to evade the cops. Billie Jean is asked to autograph a newspaper, her Joan Of Arc-inspired haircut is copied by local teens and her image is adorned on t-shirts, caps, posters, frisbees, bumper stickers, and even airplane banners as she becomes the “legend” in the title. You could see this as a comment on how consumerism and capitalism is an unavoidable by-product of causes and activism, but that’s not the message here. This film is a precursor to the overrated Queen & Slim whose narrative essentially did the same thing but stereotypically and depressingly rather than upbeat and uplifting as is the case here. Unlike Queen & Slim, The Legend Of Billie Jean doesn’t just focus on the original “crime”. Whilst on her Texan Riviera outlaw odyssey, Billie Jean rescues a kid from his abusive father, and thus becomes a genuine hero akin to Supergirl 😉.
Set in the height of summer in Corpus Christi, Texas, the cinematography isn’t Do The Right Thing (which made relatively cold days look blisteringly hot) and the direction isn’t something that stands-out either (although there’s a Larry Cohen-esque interviewing of what looks like real people in “Ocean Park Mall”). That being said, the look and feel is appropriate to the setting and the target audience. In terms of cast, Helen Slater is great as the principled lead character and her friends are an oddball mixture which includes Yeardly Smith (Maximum Overdrive) who most people will know as the voice of Lisa in The Simpsons. Richard Bradford is particularly believable as the rapey Mr. Pyatt who then sets-up a stall to sell Billie Jean merch, and the always likeable Peter Coyote plays the cop who isn’t just out for blood but the one bloke who’s looking to discover what really happened. Keith Gordon (Dressed To Kill, Christine) also plays a pre-Pretty In Pink love interest across the class divide.
Being an ’80s teen movie, there’s the obligatory mall scene (the fictional Ocean Park Mall is shot in Sunrise Mall in Corpus Christi which is sadly now closed), our protagonists somehow use toy walkie-talkies long-range, and there’s inept cops chasing but never catching our heroes. In terms of soundtrack, this isn’t a John Hughes movie so the music is a little bit ropey and too “old” for the intended target audience (Pat Benatar instead of Simple Minds) but that being said, now that almost four decades have passed, even crappy pop music of the day sounds tolerable.
The Legend Of Billie Jean has an unrealistic and idealist narrative; it’s a feel-good adventure rather than a depressing drama. It could also be seen as a Feminist film whether it was originally intended to be or not. Like a reverse of The Goonies or Stranger Things, the girls outnumber the boys here. With the female lead sticking-up for her brother as well and fighting against a male sexual assaulter, plus a screenplay that isn’t shy about menstruation, if it was made today, critics would be slobbering over it as it ticks all their boxes in regards to female empowerment. That being said, on Rotten Tomatoes, The Legend Of Billie Jean is rated at 40% which makes it sound like a sub-par, throwaway flick which it quite clearly isn’t. I think mainstream critics need their heads testing or need to recognise that their reviews were wrong. After all…
Fair Is Fair.
ok what planet are you from that you think Pat Benatar is crappy pop music??? Other than that, you are spot on and this movie is a freaking classic! Well worth a watch anytime.