Movies from our childhood tend to hold a special place in our hearts. Rarely do we look back on them and think back with anything other than affection. Since my son was born nearly a year ago, I have spent some time revisiting my early cinematic loves. Some hold up (1993’s The Meteor Man), while others don’t (1988’s Bloodsport). With a mixture of excitement and fear, I pulled the 1985 Matthew Robbins film The Legend of Billie Jean from the $5 bin at Wal-Mart and started up my DVD player. For the uninitiated, The Legend of Billie Jean is the story of Texas kids Billie Jean Davy (Helen Slater) and her brother Binx (Christian Slater), who get caught up in events that turn them into fugitives and Billie Jean into a national hero. I’m overjoyed to say that I think it absolutely holds up. The frizzy hair, neon clothes, and synth-rock were the armor for a generation trying to find itself, and, for a short while, Billie Jean was its leader.
After a local bully trashes Binx’s motorbike and beats him bloody, Billie Jean goes to see the bully’s father, Pyatt, with an auto shop bill seeking payment to cover the repair. When the father’s response shifts from friendly to skeevy, things quickly escalate, leaving the father with a bullet hole and the Davy kids on the run. The cops now on their tail, the Davy kids hit the road with the two friends as they try to clear their names and get what’s owed to them. As the story spreads, more and more kids begin to emulate Billie Jean and lend their support where possible.
There’s a lot to love about this movie and a lot to forgive. The soundtrack is amazing and features some of the icons of the era. The Divinyls, Billy Idol, and Pat Benatar all lend their voices in a movie about teenage rebellion. Their songs talked about sex, sure, but also independence and individual agency. As teens, that’s all you really want – to feel in control of your life, however you can. As the voice of Billie Jean, especially in the iconic “Invincible” by Pat Benatar, we’re presented with the portrait of a character that is more than she appears. Perceived by the cop who ignored her and Pyatt who tried to assault her as nothing more than a pretty face, these songs help highlight who Billie Jean really is – a young woman with great honor and integrity who will not bow down before hypocrisy.
Don’t get me wrong The Legend of Billie Jean has its flaws. While the Davy kids start off as wrongly-done innocents, their actions easily sway into the criminal arena. Not to mention some glaring plotholes in both dialogue and narrative structure that make you wonder why you were rooting for the Davy kids at all. But you have to give writers Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner credit for trying to turn a cheesy 80’s drama into a Joan of Arc homage as Billie Jean is forced to pull herself up and fight for what she believes in.
As a kid, movies like The Legend of Billie Jean helped shape the way that I look at the world. One of the things I love about this movie is that the ending isn’t exactly happy, nor does it wrap things up. It just sort of ends. We don’t know what happens next or what happened to them from the climax to the first credit rolling and I liked that because life is like that. We don’t always get what we want and things don’t always play out in a way we want. Sometimes things just happen and all you can do is move on. In Billie Jean’s case, all she wanted was the $608 she was owed. That was it. She didn’t want to be a hero or a martyr. She wanted what was owed to her because it was pure and it was right. “Fair is fair!” she cries more than once. While the world may not always think like this, I do and I want my son to think the same. Be reasonable, be respectful. Treat others how we want to be treated. I may not have Pat Benatar singing my theme, but that’s what iPod’s are for.
Available in multiple formats for purchase and streaming.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5