The title and cover art for James King’s The Ultimate History of the ’80s Teen Movie are misleading: it would be easy to mistake this book for a light, gossipy read about the Brat Pack and behind-the-scenes dirt. There is a fair share of personal celebrity stories, but what King delivers is a solid piece of film history that puts teen movies of the 1980s in perspective. The seriousness of this study begins with the introduction, where King raises the question of how to navigate this history in light of the #MeToo movement, the fallout around Harvey Weinstein, and the 2018 New Yorker article authored by Molly Ringwald, “What About ‘The Breakfast Club’? Revisiting the movies of my youth in the age of #MeToo”, all of which bring to light the persistence of rape culture in ’80s Hollywood.
Well into his narrative, King points out that there was a quiet revolution happening, as smart, young women were not only the focus of movies but were also a growing presence as writers, directors, and industry executives. These developments happened off the radar, King argues, because they “didn’t make for such dramatic headlines as tales of Judd Nelson’s ego or Rob Lowe going on the prowl.”
King begins by mapping out the chasm between ’70s films and ’80s films: it sits with John Travolta, Saturday Night Fever, and Grease. Thanks to those two films, Saturday Night Fever in December 1977 and Grease a quick six months later, Travolta was a superstar. However, that was the pinnacle of his career, and King explains the changes in the industry, the films made, and the cultural moment that left Travolta behind. What Travolta’s two films inspired, along with 1978’s Animal House, was a transformation of the films that dominated the box office for the next decade. King notes that by 1978, 74% of the moviegoing audience was between the ages of 12 and 29, a prime market for entertainment. It took a few years for the industry to find its way to these viewers, and King charts the changes that contributed to the teen movie genre.
Another mark of the changes underway, King argues, was the end of a certain generation of leading men. Method actor Robert De Niro won the 1981 best actor Academy Award for his portrayal of boxer Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. That De Niro trained for months and eventually gained 60 pounds to portray La Motta later in life is a well-known story of his adherence to Method acting. “Yet for every young star who dreamed of replicating that dedication there was the same old problem, the one that John Travolta knew all about: Raging Bull was becoming an exception, an anomaly,” King writes. “So all of those hungry teenager performers in awe of the dark passion of De Niro as Jake La Motta (or Pacino as Serpico, Hackman as Popeye Doyle) now found Hollywood in 1981 a very different place.” Roles like those were not being written anymore: not only were strong leading men less frequent but ensemble casts became increasingly prevalent.
In an interesting and well-founded argument, King ties together the teen movie, television series like Happy Days targeted at younger audiences, and the cultural phenomenon that was MTV. That King is British colors his views of these developments. He points out, for example, that British bands like Pink Floyd and Queen were producing promotional films long before music videos launched an entire cable network in the US. But while MTV was rife with young artists, directors, and personalities that connected with teens, King sketches stories of films from the early ’80s that were aimed at a teen audience but could not quite connect.
The appearance of Cameron Crowe on the scene changed all that. Crowe was 15 when he began writing for Rolling Stone and 22 when he went undercover as a high school student to script what eventually became Fast Times at Ridgemont High. King notes that going back to school enabled Crowe to “work extra hard to make his story of teenagers feel real, honest, and extraordinary.” Fast Times at Ridgemont High was an enigma — neither serious nor raunchy, “too sexual but not sexy”, according to notes handed to director Amy Heckerling. Not fitting the existing genres and marketing plots, Fast Times at Ridgemont High carved out its own corner for moviegoers.
Throughout The Ultimate History of the ’80s Teen Movie, King considers movies alongside accompanying cultural changes in the US: Ronald Reagan’s presidency, corporate greed, and the waning years of the Cold War, all of which were reflected in films of the ’80s. Home video had a tremendous impact on the entertainment industry, creating new opportunities for distribution and revenue. In 1979, there were around 700 video rental stores in the United States and within five years that number grew to more than 16,000. King includes stories of films like Eddie and the Cruisers that failed at the box office but were profitable as home video rentals. This critical history of the VHS market is essential to understanding the cinema in the ’80s.
Ample space is devoted to John Hughes and the Brat Pack. In his chapter “Brand Hughes”, King charts the very quick rise of the director, his genre, his actors, and the films that are undeniably central to the ’80s aesthetic. Working together, Hughes and Ringwald, his cross-generation muse, helped mold a subgenre of teen movies that focused on family, friendship, being the outsider, and navigating class struggle. Three films starring Ringwald and directed by Hughes — Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), and Pretty in Pink (1986) — quickly cemented the genre. Ringwald declined a lead role in Hughes’ 1987 Some Kind of Wonderful; King reports that Ringwald and Hughes never spoke to each other again (Hughes died in 2009, at the age of 59). The director left teen movies behind, ending the decade with hits like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and Home Alone.
Moving through the growing popularity of teen movies, King unpacks films through writing, casting, directing, distribution, and marketing, showing the influences and overlaps among them. Certain actors not included in the Brat Pack — Sean Penn, Madonna (Penn’s wife for the latter half of the ’80s), Matt Dillon, Timothy Hutton, and Jodie Foster, among others — appear throughout King’s narratives, creating a sense of cohesion that helps define the decade beyond those who were part of the John Hughes brand. A difficulty of chronicling a particular decade is the lack of endings and beginnings in which the years align neatly with cultural changes.
King’s final chapter, “1989: Seize the Day…and Party On”, details how different the films of the final year of the decade were from those that came before, yet he follows the same critical format of discussing the films as the preceding chapter. A stronger marker of difference and a sense of closure are lacking from this chapter, although both would have served the book well.