As we saw in Music of the Movies: John Hughes, music is never just background noise in ‘80s films; it’s also integral to story and character. And while the surprise dance scene of The Breakfast Club is an unforgettable example, Hughes was far from the only ‘80s director to make song and dance prominent in his movies. Many ‘80s teen films share their titles with songs – like 1985’s St. Elmo’s Fire and 1986’s Pretty in Pink – while others boast iconic uses of music such as the boombox of Say Anything and Judd Nelson’s fist pump to Simple Minds as The Breakfast Club concludes.
But some ‘80s filmmakers embraced music and dance on an even greater level, making them central narrative and thematic concerns. Alan Parker’s Fame, released in 1980 and swiftly followed by a 6-season TV series, is a notable early example.
Fame focuses on a group of teenagers attending New York’s High School of Performing Arts (real life alumni include Liza Minnelli and Jennifer Aniston), following them from the rigorous auditions through varying professional success to graduation. In the opening audition montage Fame expertly juggles complex choreography and a phenomenal number of extras. It’s an entertaining and acutely observed chronicle of the divas, delusions and desperation which can accompany creative ambition.
As well as its musical sequences, Fame is commendable for its sensitive exploration of youth anxiety and a range of issues which now rarely make it into mainstream teen films. Although Christopher Gore’s unbalanced screenplay ensures that some characters are left behind in the film’s third act, the odd trio of acting hopefuls Montgomery (ER’s Paul McCrane) and Doris (Maureen Teefy) and rising comedian Ralph (Barry Miller) create the most powerful drama. Although compared to the abortion plot of 1987’s Dirty Dancing, Doris’ termination is rather sidelined it’s still a bold inclusion in the wake of Roe v. Wade. And Fame went one further, also depicting the accidental pregnancy of a talented ballet student whose character is developed from the snobby privileged girl she first appears to be to reveal a profound sense of isolation. This development unfolds in a monologue which surely influenced those in John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club.
Although it also tackled drug abuse, suicidal feelings and parental abandonment Fame is probably most celebrated for its title track, and Irene Cara’s vocals. But this in no way does justice to Cara’s work in Fame; a no-holds-barred performance which uncovers the sexual exploitation young actresses can be subject to. By comparison the 2009 remake tackles a much more PG range of issues; pregnancy is nowhere to be seen and many storylines are watered-down versions of Gore’s narratives. However, unlike 2011’s Footloose, a virtual shot-by-shot remake of Herbert Ross’ 1984 original, 2009’s Fame features new characters and a stand-out performance from Kay Panabaker as an under-confident acting student.
Footloose and Dirty Dancing are the ultimate in ‘80s dance movies, and both are as concerned with social commentary as they are with shaking it on the dance floor. A cut above John Water’s integration-promoting Hairspray (1988) and far less smug than the 2007 remake, sleeper hit Dirty Dancing probes the microcosmic class system which exists among the staff of its holiday camp setting. For Patrick Swayze’s dance instructor Johnny Castle it’s like the Greasers and the Socs of The Outsiders all over again as Dirty Dancing penetrates the seedy depths beneath the contented middle class façade of a luxury holiday resort. Perhaps as it was written by a woman, Eleanor Bergstein, who’s slated to produce an upcoming remake, Dirty Dancing treats its female characters with depth and respect. The aforementioned abortion plot is not the only storyline to expose a man’s poor treatment of a woman; there are also hints that a weekend guest at the resort spends the week with another woman, leaving his wife to enjoy a summer of blissful ignorance.
Despite her name, Dirty Dancing’s Baby (Jennifer Grey) is a toughie, and the same is true of Footloose’s troubled Ariel (originally Lori Singer and a treacle-voiced Miley Cyrus-esque Julianne Hough in the remake). While the characters of Adrian Lyne’s Flashdance (1983) are not complex enough to provide the interest the minimal plot barely retains, characters like the Ariel of 1984’s Footloose are a force of intrigue. So is Footloose’s focus on religious extremism, one half of a narrative conflict immediately established in the opening’s juxtaposition of teens toe-tapping to Kenny Loggin’s “Footloose” and a sermon from Reverend Shaw Moore. The fish-out-of-water scenario of Kevin Bacon’s city-kid Ren arriving to small town Bomont calls into question just how much power a minister should have over the lives of his congregation while examining the consequences, public and private, of one family’s tragic loss. All this in a film which also features a predictable teen romance structured around a number of easily replicable set pieces. And replicated they were, in the bloated remake stuffed with bland performances which unashamedly rode the coattails of its ‘80s forerunner, even using covers of tracks from the original soundtrack.
Similarly, this summer’s Walking on Sunshine exploited the connection between ‘80s movie romances and the decade’s dance anthems (as well as the success of 2008’s Mamma Mia!) to bolster an otherwise unenticing film. But it still didn’t work. We may remember hits of the ‘80s for their soundtracks and iconic moments, but it’s their strong characters and relatable struggles that provoke personal connections in the first place.
By combining feel-good dance routines with hard-hitting issues the best of these films remain hopeful while refusing to sugar-coat the hardships of life. Above all, they advocate agency; Footloose’s Ren protests Bomont’s law against dancing and Fame’s Bruno continually strives to gain acceptance of his untraditional musical style. Johnny told us in Dirty Dancing, “Nobody puts Baby in the corner”, but this doesn’t apply merely to Baby. His words suggest that everyone can claim the power to improve their own lot, however powerless they might feel no one should ever stop fighting their corner.
Music and dance demonstrate characters’ abilities to find joy even as they struggle with other aspects of life; in Fame dance is Leroy’s sanctuary, and in Hairspray it’s a means of control that can be utilised even by those members of society subject to the oppressing force of segregation.