Film: The Legend of Billie Jean (1985) Rated: PG-13 Directed by: Matthew Robbins Written by: Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner Starring: Helen Slater as Billie Jean Christian Slater as Binx Keith Gordon as Lloyd Richard Bradford as Pyatt
By Shelley Stillo
Pre-screening memories: I stayed home from school a lot when I was young. I don’t know if my parents were lazy (throw a big enough fit….), ’80s permissive, or if they were just sympathetic. I suspect it was sympathetic.
You see, from a pretty early age, I was the teased kid. I started watching horror and sci fi in grade school. By third or fourth grade I was identifying as a Dr. Who fan, conventions and all. By fourth grade, I had a best friend geeky enough to play “Lost Boys” with me on weekends (we would write our own elaborate, soap opera-esque plots for the “Lost Boys” characters and act them out. She was Michael’s (Jason Patric) girlfriend, I was David’s (Keifer Sutherland), though I think we both secretly lusted over the more age-appropriate Coreys).
I wouldn’t trade geekdom for the world. But it made for a rough childhood. 90% of the time, when I whined to stay home from school, it was because I was afraid of bullies, and my parents knew it. They had a heart; I had a lot of sick days.
That’s why you’ll hear me say, “I think I was home sick in bed…” so often on this podcast when I’m asked how I first encountered a movie. “Home from school” was where I was when I first encountered The Legend of Billie Jean. Before watching it again, I had very vague memories of this film. I remembered an image, and the themes, and that is it. The image I remembered was of the colossal Billie Jean statue burning near the end of the film.
As for the themes, I remembered that the movie was about outlaw teenagers in some kind of epic struggle. Despite the famous use of Pat Benetar’s “Invincible,” throughout the film, it took me years to figure out where these flashes of memory had come from (of course, once I did, I couldn’t hear the song without aching to see the film again). Now that I have seen the film again, I am not surprised that my bullied young self had such an affinity for it. Billie Jean might have been the town heart throb, but her family and her friends were outcasts, and I wasn’t at all shocked to find that the whole film is triggered in by an act of bullying.
New Memories: The plot has an element of absurdity to it that gave it an “only in the 80s quality” for me that I loved. But that absurdity is pleasantly mixed with a sense of earnestness—even when what is happening on screen is pushing silly, everything feels real and feels palpable.
The experiences Billie Jean and her friends, especially her little brother Binx (Christian Slater) and her overzealous young neighbor Putter (a pre-Lisa Simpson Yeardley Smith) are often dead serious even when the scenarios are not: Billie has to fight off an attempted rape, Binx is fascinated yet frightened by the possibilities of violence, and the needy Putter is the victim of abuse.
However, these instances are not the “issues” that drive the films, they’re simply the realities these characters contend with day in and day out. And as such, they ground the action without stifling it with “meaning.” There are also elements of Neverland (of the Peter Pan, not the Michael Jackson, variety) in the film that I’m sure appealed to me as a child, and appeal even more to me now, such as the character’s temporary home in an abandoned mini-golf course, or the introduction of the character Lloyd (Keith Gordon), whose home resembles a Universal horror film prop closet. These settings lend an air of Goonies-esque fantasy to this much grittier Texas based film.
But seeing it again has convinced me that it is the “golden rule” theme of how you treat others that appealed to me most when I caught this film during one of my numerous experiences with playing hookie. Now that I have seen the film, I can understand why I identified with its ethic of “fair is fair” treatment, and why such a mantra would have been so resonant that I have felt this film for so many years, more than I have remembered it.
Download Natsukashi’s: ‘The Legend of Billie Jean’ podcast .
or, you listen right here, because fair is fair:
Our featured guest: Richard Walden
We here at Natsukashi love us our Richard Walden. How can you not? The man is warm, gracious and always happy to help us walk through the films from his resume. Richard returns to join us after his Continent Divide podcast earlier this summer, and here dishes on working with the young cast of then-up-and-coming actors, the parallels between Billie Jean and another strong female protagonist who controversially cut her hair, Felicity (on which Richard also worked).
His most recetly worked on Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, from Harry Potterdirector Chris Columbus and starring Uma Thurman, Pierce Brosnan and Rosario Dawson. He’s also recently worked on Ramona and Beezus, a film adaptation from the popular Beverly Cleary “Ramona” book series.