In Which Sometimes The Moves Do Not Make The Man
Tuesday, September 23, 2008 at 6:41PM
Will in FILM

Relieve the mysterious decade of the 1980s in film with us this week. You can find the archives of the series here.

It Was A Very Good Year


1984 was a great year for pop songs and pop stars. That summer, I fell off a hammock and spent three months in a brace that enforced good trapezius alignment and kept me out of the swimming pool. I remember sitting by the lifeguard and listening to the hits from his tinny mono-speaker: When Doves Cry, What’s Love Got To Do With It, and Like A Virgin.

The 80s remind you that popular kids do not become rock heroes; the stars are the freaks with ADD and megalomania. There is an appalling, appealing absurdity to many of the films of that period, especially those starring Prince, Madonna or Tina Turner.

Watching Purple Rain, it is inconceivable that such a shoddy script would become a film today (even 50 Cent got an art-house director to hone his acting debut). Luckily, someone recognized that the performance of a “dwarf dipped in a bucket of pubic hair” (as Boy George once called Prince) was better than a plausible story or skilled acting. The energy and ease of the Artist’s on-stage antics—when dancing he’s a mashup of Gene Kelly and James Brown—and the New Romantic couture are so mesmerizing that you overlook the dialogue and wooden performances.

Literal-mindedness is petty; in Purple Rain, we get a touch of biographical conflict and broad strokes of the voyeuristic sexuality and personal whimsy from which the young Prince tailored his musical catalog. He’s self-pitying to the point of self-destruction. He collects antique dolls, practices ventriloquism, and listens to fetishistic recordings of women crying while living in a basement apartment straight out of Silence of the Lambs. Can you imagine this in a Justin Timberlake biopic?

"Strollin'" - Prince (mp3)

"Willing and Able" - Prince (mp3)

"Walk Don't Walk" - Prince (mp3)

Rock stars are always our exotic other, even if they come from the next town. These films are their creation myths, forging their beginnings and crowning them star entertainers. None of these flicks will be remembered for their stories but that’s not the only enjoyment of cinema.

Desperately Seeking Susan is a kind of cinema verite: it’s entirely believable that young Madonna has just climbed out of a garbage dump (or a gangster’s Atlantic City hotel room), bathed in a Port Authority sink and picked up her clothes at Love Saves the Day. Madonna’s early successes weren’t about her refinement as an aesthete or a provocateur; she was a slightly attractive, slightly repellant girl from the Midwest.

There’s something about Desperately Seeking Susan that resonates with edgier New York stories like Taxi Driver or After Hours. Maybe it’s the examination of the erotic gaze—Susan is a parasite and a touchstone, which is why so many characters in the film put up with her. Her life’s is a mess but she isn’t. Maybe that’s why Madonna convinces in the role: for Susan (as for Ms. Ciccone) self-preservation always comes first.

Mad Max is a giant cabaret canvas for the Anna Mae Bullock variety show. This is pre-Oprah Tina Turner and she sports a Grace Jones snear, a lion’s mane of synthetic hair and killer legs. Does anyone remember anything about this film besides her bizarre get-ups?

Tina Turner had already survived the crucible of fame; the mid-80s were her moment to re-emerge as liberated woman, and her Aunty Entity has an edginess that matches the singer’s life and times. In it, Tina’s smile is megawatt but self-regarding. I’d argue that the best stars are only half engaged with their audience, because, like a child playing dress up, most of the fun comes from the conviction of the fantasy. This Tina wears a chain-mail minidress, Fred Flintstone shankbone earrings and stilettos—in the desert!

No audience will be fooled that these films are about their fictional entities. The pleasure of watching is getting to spend time with the stars—arguably the last time that Prince or Madonna offered an unguarded view of self. The wobbly performances are like the Natalie Portman scenes in Closer—seemingly a coincidence if a convincing line was caught on camera. But it’s the lack of skill that reifies the star. As Zizek says about the unmasked Wizard of Oz, "There is something more real in the illusion than in the reality behind it."

Karina Wolf is the senior contributor to This Recording. She lives in Manhattan, and her tumblr is here.

TR legend Wolf in the flesh


Women of the year.

The swimming pool.

Creeley at Cedar Bar.

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