Wednesday, March 19, 2008

80's Trash of the Week: The Legend of Billie Jean

The time has come to say fair's fair. Oops, wrong song.

By the mid-80's the suits at the studios had noticed the popularity of the MTV, and wanted to profit off it. What better way than taking the title of a 1983 Michael Jackson song, making everyone white, have Pat Benatar write a song for it, and have it be about kids being right and adults being wrong?

I can imagine the producers salivating at the very prospect of it. The kids would come in droves! They would embrace the very commercialism the movie mocks, and everyone involved would win a lifetime supply of cocaine. But it was not to be. The movie flopped at the box office and has a small but loyal cult following, mostly girls who dig the Joan of Arc vibe and the strong heroine in the movie, a rarity then and now.
When I first saw him, I assumed Christian Slater was the title character.

The story begins with Billie Jean (Helen Slater, Supergirl) and her brother Binx (Christian Slater, no relation) on his little sissy moped getting hassled by jock assholes in their muscle car for no good reason. Hubie is the ringleader, a typical rural town douchebag who wants a date with Billie Jean and thinks bullying her little brother is the best way to go about it. He gets a milkshake in the face, and vows revenge.

They go for a swim to cool off, where Binx asks Billie Jean about Vermont. They're obsessed with it. It's their Promised Land. And they're not even crazy Libertarians. Or are they? They like taking the law into their own hands.
Obligatory swimsuit scene.

When Hubie and his jerkoff friends show up, they take off with Binx's beloved scooter, and spray them with dirt as they leave. If punks are not available for an 80's movie villain, bullies are always a fine substitute. Especially ones with powerful fathers.

They head home to the trailer park where their oblivious mom is off on yet another date. She blames them for the scooter being taken, since "Fault doesn't matter, it's what you end up with that matters." Also in the house are two other young girls, Putter (Yeardley Smith, Lisa from"The Simpsons") and Ophelia (Get Thee to a Nunnery) who has a car. Billie Jean and crew go to the cops, but there's nothing he can do yet. Even if Hubie is a fucker, as li'l Putter says so succinctly. Of course Binx tries to get his bike back, and gets beaten up for his trouble. And worse yet, they trashed his beloved scooter.

The apple don't fall far from the tree! Dad's an asshole too.

Billie Jean gets a repair bill for the scooter and heads over to Hubie's father's shop to demand the money. At first Mr. Pyatt seems reasonable, since this isn't the first time Hubie's been in trouble and needed bailing out. He asks her to go upstairs so he can give her the money, where he lays out a pay-by-rape installment plan for her to get the $608. Thankfully Binx was downstairs poking in the cash register where he finds Mr. Pyatt's gun, and as Billie Jean struggles with the rapist scumbag downstairs, he accidentally shoots him. Oops! Never tell a kid your gun isn't loaded, you dummy. He's only wounded, and they run off in their station wagon.

The kids go on the lam, which involves driving around town avoiding the oblivious police. Lt. Ringwald shows up (Peter Coyote, The Bugs Bunny-Road Runner Hour) to try to make sense of what happened. Of course the slimy Mr. Pyatt has his own story, that they were trying to rob the store. Eventually he finds out about the scooter and the $600 repairs, and tries to lure Billie Jean back in by ponying up the money himself and having cheap-ass Pyatt give it to her at a local mall.

Billie Jean shows up, and Mr. Pyatt screws up the deal by having Hubie and his goons try to grab her during the exchange. At this point Billie Jean shows her gift of being able to kick a guy in the nuts at will. She'll use this fearsome weapon throughout the film. If only she could have kicked Pyatt in the balls when the trouble started, he wouldn't have gotten shot and there'd be no movie. If only. She gets chased all through the mall by his goons, to the tune of "Rebel Yell."

I also began to wonder why the useless police officer Ringwald didn't kick a mudhole in Pyatt's ass and stomp it dry. He begins making wanted posters and selling them, and by the end of the film he's selling Billie Jean t-shirts and Trapper Keepers. Billie Jean and the kids on the other hand are stealing toy guns and stuff, and leaving IOU notes. But they get hungry, and come upon a rich-looking house where they find no one is home, and they go all Goldilocks on the porridge within. Billie Jean is wandering around when she notices the house isn't empty, but home to a werewolf. I wish I had a screenshot of this scene, where she hits a werewolf in the nuts with a guitar, but it was on cable.

The kid in the werewolf mask turns out to be Lloyd (Keith Gordon) played by the kid from Christine and Back to School. He has a video camera and apparently likes to make monster movies by himself when his parents aren't home. They stay up and watch a movie about Joan of Arc, and he tells them about how she stood up for her beliefs and got barbecued for her trouble. She becomes an inspiration for Billie Jean, who cuts her hair short like Joan did, and don a cut up wetsuit like Joan didn't. But she looks cool. Sort of like Billy Idol in drag.
The ultimate in 80's rebellion- small hair.

Lloyd makes a video of her stating her case, where she tells what really happened and demands "What's Fair is Fair!" I'm not exactly sure how this video was disseminated before youtube with such lightning speed, but Lloyd mentions something, and next thing you know a little kid is delivering the tape to the cops, and Billie Jean is a media sensation. Radio DJ's are holding scooter contests. Other girls are cutting their hair in solidarity. Lloyd gets the bright idea of pretending to be a hostage, and his Dad (Dean Stockwell, "Quantum Leap") just happens to be the D.A., and offers a $10,000 reward.

Now for some reason Billie Jean is walking around town, when she hears a boy being beat on by his Dad. She goes in to rescue him, and he's gonna beat her too. She forgets how to kick people in the nuts now and then, poor girl. Then the evil Dad sees throngs of Billie Jean fans outside in his yard, ready to do her bidding, and she gets to save the little boy. It's such a throwaway scene, trying to turn her into a savior and fulfill the Joan of Arc role, that I was waiting for her to lead her kid Army against Pyatt. But the reward gets in her way.

They get spotted by a redneck in a monster truck (this is Texas after all) who starts shooting at them with a rifle to get the reward. During these hijinks, they think little Putter is shot, because she's bleeding. But no, she just had her first period. Now I am not horrified by these things. I used to watch "The Facts of Life" and everything! I think Tootie had her period or something., didn't she? But I was not ready for Lisa Simpson to have her period during a car chase. "When do I git a diaphragm!?" She asks, with all her trailer trash charm. She's actually the best part of the movie, and she even cuts her hair too, when her mom comes to get her and slaps her face. So remember, parents. Don't be an asshole or your kids might cut their hair off. The gasps of shock as she cut her hair were hilarious. I wish she would have burned her training bra.
I'm being cruel to this movie because it had potential, and was so obviously crafted to be an MTV Generation blockbuster that it shot itself in the foot numerous times. Give me a strong heroine (and some strong heroin) every time. Geena Davis, Sigourney Weaver, Linda Hamilton... hell I even like Joan of Arc, though in proper film nerd form I'd have used Maria Falconetti or Florence DeLay's performance instead of Saint Joan. The movie's all over the place, but it does redeem itself in some ways. For example, you get to see Christian Slater in drag. He throws on a dress and some make-up, and apparently was in tears on the set according to rumor. I'd love to have a photo of that. Nothing against Christian Slater, but Kuffs crying in drag is too hard to resist.

Young Christian Slater in drag.

With his fake gun in tow, he goes to trade Lloyd the hostage for a new scooter, and is shot and wounded by the police, while the real Billie Jean hides in the crowd with a wig. I'm not sure if it would have been better to have an army of Billie Jeans show up so they can't get the real one, sort of like the end of ¡Three Amigos!, but maybe it was just parallel the wound to the shoulder of Pyatt, so Binx doesn't get away clean.

Now Billie Jean is really pissed, and finally confronts Pyatt in front of his store, where he's gotten rich off selling t-shirts with her face on it. She gets him to admit his crimes on TV in front of everyone, and kicks him in the nuts for good measure. This knocks down a string of lights, and sets his store on fire, starting with a big Billie Jean statue, so she does get to burn like Joan of Arc, except without any real sacrifice. Even Hubie the Douche abandons his father, despite having caused all the trouble himself. And no one will help him as the place burns down. Billie Jeans fans dutifully burn their t-shirts, and we have a somber moment to reflect on the message of the movie, which is that Fair is Fair, but only if you you cut your hair and look like a rock star.

And they do get to Vermont. Apparently they abandon their mom and drive up there, so Binx can eye a snowmobile that looks like his old scooter. Hyuck, hyuck. Here we go again. Sadly that sequel was never to be. Helen Slater became Supergirl and Christian made a much better movie, Heathers, that made him a star.

The hit song "Invincible" by Pat Benatar comes from this film, which she has repeatedly called "one of the worst films ever made." It's shallow but it's not that bad, if it only had the ovaries to give the film a real message, Billie Jean could have been a real legend. There are plenty of worse 80's movies to watch, but ultimately this is pretty forgettable. It did leave a mark with her shocking for the time hairstyle, which did spawn imitators. Seeing the reaction to it in the movie is amusing today. Despite her penchant for the knee to the groin, she's a strong heroine and a role model for standing up for what's fair. This absolves the movie of its many sins.
Beers Required to Enjoy: 2
Quotability Rating: Low
Cheese Factor: Medium
Could it be made today? Kids with guns? Surely you jest!
Gratuitous Boobs: Zero, but a nice swimsuit scene
High Points: "Invincible" by Pat Benatar, Lisa Simpson has her first period
Low Point: A pitiful throwaway scene about child abuse

1 comments:

Cat said...

I remember this film solely because of the song Invincible which I used to watch on MTV all the time. As for the actual story, I couldn't tell what the hell the film was about really. I do know that I became bored rather quickly and drifted off but woke up in time for the fire at the end. It cemented my crush on Christian Slater, and my total distrust of MTV films. I've never bothered watching it again. However, I still get a thrill listening to the song.

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