Saturday, October 6, 2012

Don't You (Forget About the 1980s)

While it's not quite a trend yet on par with the glut Shakespeare-goes-to-the-real-world films that populated the landscape in the late 1990s and early 2000s; with two films in recent years very overtly referencing the teen flicks of the '80s I'm definitely sensing a pattern emerging. Two years ago it was the wickedly hilarious Easy A that mined the genre's hey day of past hits for its own glory. Predominantly Cameron Crowe's Say Anything and its famous John Cusack pose recreated by Penn Badgeley and a pair of iPod dock speakers, with Simple Minds' The Breakfast Club theme, "Don't You (Forget About Me)", replacing Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes". Oh and the fist pump! And the Ferris Beuler-esque musical number! And that's not even going into Easy A's reappropriation of The Scarlet Letter!

That Simple Minds song, however, is also one of the key narrative points of the new college a capella musical, Pitch Perfect. As the two lovebirds at the centre of Jason Moore's effervescent flick make cute with one another, the Skylar Astin character (Yes, "Skylar Astin" is apparently a human name) asks Anna Kendrick's Beca to watch The Breakfast Club. It goes on to become an integral part of the film's final medley number at the a capella performance competition that Beca's campus singing group are a finalist of. The story of Pitch Perfect is inarguably weak sauce, and has even already been done this very year in the Dolly Parton/Queen Latifah choir musical, Joyful Noise. It's actually a bit freaky how similar these two movies are, right on down to how they come to be a finalist, the forbidden romance, and so on.

Seems to me that, especially in Pitch Perfect's case, but also Easy A, that the filmmakers are using our associations with these legitimate classics to bolster the drama of their own movie. "Aw, I love The Breakfast Club, it was so great being reminded of it in Pitch Perfect. Five stars." and so on. In Pitch Perfect's case, in it's effort to become some sort of Bring It On for a new generation, it's a shame that they so obviously echo The Breakfast Club, right on down to its Judd Nelson fistpump moment, rather than forge their own identity. Similarly, just like how the ending of Easy A felt overly simplistic in its aping of Say Anything. Easy A, however, has the bonus of Emma Stone's (not even being hyperbolic here) Oscar-worthy performance for it to become a memorable piece that maybe teen films in 20 years will reference. That's something Pitch Perfect ultimately lacks, and a fate as a lesser cousin to Bring It On and Mean Girls surely awaits.

That's not to say the film isn't entertaining, because it is. It's very much the film one expects it to be. Most will gravitate towards Rebel Wilson's attention-grabbing performance (sometimes for all the wrong reasons), but I was most impressed by Kendrick's rather delicate way of playing her character as somebody who finds the whole thing preposterous, but at the same time enticing, much like Kendrick herself must have felt about the film itself. She's a good singer, too, and her rendition of "Don't You (Forget About Me)" is sublime with the beautiful harmonies in the background. I wonder though when Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Beuller's Day Off, and all the other '80s teen relics will get their referencing moment to shine? Where's this generation's Jake Ryan, and how obvious will they make the reference, hmmm? Hopefully no Long Duk Dong copycats are waiting to emerge.

I definitely think there's a way to read it as saying something about how young people use popular entertainments like movies and celebrity to help guide them through life. A desperation for the iconic moments of a fictional character to become our own iconic moment because, hey, movies are cool and we like to think our lives are interesting like them. But while I could ponder on that thought, I'm curiously still finding myself butting heads with that odd moment in Pitch Perfect that shows a cropped DVD cover of The Breakfast Club. No mention is made as to why, but only four of the five faces are visible and for a film that has just obvious reverence for the 1985 John Hughes movie, it seems strange that they'd include that. Did Molly Ringwald have too high a fee for using her image? Curiouser and curiouser, indeed, but Pitch Perfect is hardly a movie one will find themselves using as a means of navigating thorny intellectual ideas.


Tableau said...

I really like this review, but I kind of disagree. For me, Easy A's use of Say Anything feels a little cheap and emotionally exploitative (though I still really like the movie). In Pitch Perfect, I think the screenwriter was using The Breakfast Club moment to show that Becca is finally willing to care about people other than herself. For her, playing that song is an act of contrition - it's her way of apologizing. In The Breakfast Club, the song encapsulates a moment of independence and the desire to be heard. I think that Pitch Perfect is only using The Breakfast Club as a cultural touchstone, not as an emotional or story crutch.

Glenn Dunks said...

Interesting point. For me, though, I think Easy A is good enough to stand the test of time for the genre. Pitch Perfect, however, is not.

Unknown said...

I hate that movies are so reference-heavy these days.
In 20 years, for instance, half of Ted will be unfamiliar to the young audience.