Youth in Revolt: The Legend of Billie Jean

While  The Legend of Billie Jean hasn’t yet made the transition from obscure VHS to DVD, it looks as though it’s a possibility, thanks to fervent nostalgics that transformed the ballyhooed 1985 teen movie into a cult classic. (Yeardly Smith did record DVD commentary for Sony, who was supposed to have released it by now). Surprisingly, those with a Netflix account, can endure the technological limbo, and add the movie to their Instant Queue.

This film is an odd product for its day, given the kind of movies that once typified the teen genre. Amidst numerous, cheaply produced T & A comedies (Private School, Spring Break, Porky’s, etc.), which indulged the exploits of mindlessly horny adolescents, John Hughes would soon become an 80s icon with sincere portrayals of American youth, both in drama and comedy. Elsewhere, a sub-genre of C-grade films that, seemingly inspired by 1950s pulp fiction, raised paranoia about the urban teenage timebomb (i.e. Class of 1984, Savage Streets, 3:15). Well, somewhere in the middle of all this is The Legend of Billie Jean. The B-grade action-drama (which includes a tasty foot chase!) isn’t set in the halls of the All-American high school, the comfort of Middle-class America, or even the grimy streets of the inner city, but more unusually, was filmed in and around the coastal Texas city of Corpus Christi.

At the forefront of The Legend of Billie Jean is the vigilante teen hero — or in this case, a heroine. This much had been done before, most notably, in Jonathan Kaplan’s 1979 film, Over the Edge. Based on true events, it tells the story of a burgeoning, fictional Colorado suburb brought to its knees in a violent revolt by its  bored and restless young residents who were ignored in its development. The decade’s punk cinema, too, steeped in a naive devotion to anarchy, was rife with temporary youth revolt (changing the status quo is hard work). Smithereens and Times Square, for example, featured angsty heroines who energized young, alienated audiences with their songs about mass delusion. Pump Up the Volume, which shares its star Christian Slater with The Legend of Billie Jean, was released in 1990. A sort of precursor to the free culture principals, it centered on an introverted teenager who, by  night, becomes a popular pirate radio DJ that urges the town’s disaffected teenagers to challenge arbitrary authority.

But, unlike these films, and contrary to the kind of war cry lyrics in Pat Benatar’s theme song, Invincible (“We can’t afford to be innocent/stand up and face the enemy…”), Billie Jean doesn’t exactly scream hardened leader. Helen Slater’s asthmatic 17 year-old centerfold-esque Billie Jean is confident, selfless, and innocent.

…In other words, she’s unrealistically wholesome.

Even her eventual MTV-styled makeover into a sexy feminist-guerrilla hybrid (add revealing wetsuit, buzz cut, carefully applied makeup and combat boots), it is an uncomfortable, shallow (“Billie Jean, you look… famous”), and temporary metamorphosis. Confident and selfless as she may be, her background — living with her brother and widowed mother in a sleepy trailer park — seem to only offer minimal impetus for her ethics, and no fodder at all for the crisis that erupts, setting the scene, of course, for that that beloved logic-suspending 80’s movie cheesiness.

The film begins, quite simply, with Billie Jean’s brother, Binx (Christian Slater in his film debut; no relation to co-star Helen Slater) humiliating a couple of assholes that won’t leave he and his sister alone. In retaliation, they steal Binx’s prized motor scooter while he and his sister are out on the lake. (Yes, the premise already sounds corny, but it is an update of The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas and horses just don’t mean the same to the average American teenager). Billie Jean assures her brother that they’ll  return the bike, and when they don’t, Binx decides to get it back himself. Hoping to avoid making matters worse, Billie Jean grabs her friends and heads to the police station, but the cop she speaks to (Peter Coyote) is, somewhat understandably, no help in the matter.

Binx eventually comes home a bloody mess; the bike is destroyed. Fruitlessly trying to be diplomatic Billie Jean presents  Hubie Pyatt (Barry Tubb), one of the conspirators, with an estimate from the body shop at his father’s beachfront souvenir store, asking him to compensate them for the damages. When he refuses, she takes up the issue with his father, who turns out to be an even bigger sleazebag, attempting to bargain for sexual favors.  Wondering what is taking so long, her brother and friends wander into the now-empty store (Pyatt makes his grotesque advances upstairs). Binx opens the cash drawer and finds a gun and, when Billie Jean frantically climbs down the stairs urging that they all leave, Binx threatens Pyatt with the gun, sheepishly telling him to leave his sister alone and give them the money. That simple. But, when Hubie walks in on the middle of this, his father quickly concocts a plausible explanation: the kids came to rob him. When Hubie doesn’t want to leave them to get the police because Binx is pointing a gun at his dad, Mr. Pyatt scoffs that he wouldn’t actually keep a loaded gun in the drawer. Binx, distraught, confusedly examines the gun when he accidentally shoots Mr. Pyatt. When Hubie runs for help, Billie Jean, Binx, and their friends get the hell out of their, now a couple of teenage fugitives.

Ridiculous soon gets quite ridiculous — in one scene, Billie Jean and the gang intervene in the abuse of an anonymous kid, and later, they devise a fake kidnapping of the Mayor’s nerdy son (actor-turned-director Kieth Gordon) to gain some leverage, though it’s a convoluted commentary on the public’s almost rabid thirst for celebrity and sensationalism. Immediately, Billie Jean attempts to make amends by contacting the police officer she previously spoke with (he is the only evidence that what transpired may have been an accident) to arrange their surrender, with the added caveat that Pyatt pay what is owed. It seems like a modest, if not unrealistic, thing to ask for. When, the story is picked up in the local media, they become painted as the new local antiheroes, celebrated by the young and criticized by the old. “Fair is fair” becomes their moniker and Billie Jean, the most morally-conscious and level-headed of the bunch, becomes the inadvertent spokeswoman of the fugitive teenage gang. On the one hand,she’s viewed by her peers as a (misunderstood) symbol of victorious teenage rebellion, one she had no intention of being, nevermind seems to have much of an idea how to handle. Young girls in particular begin to emulate her clothes and hairstyle, and more importantly, form underground support networks that Billie Jean accidentally stumbles upon. These kids were looking for a savior, it seemed.

Elsewhere, local news reporters, radio DJs, and merchandisers eat up the story. Even the Pyatts profit, selling posters of in their shop. So intensely sensationalized, trivialized, and exploited, it’s hard for Billie Jean, her brother, and their friends not to get swept up in the inevitably disillusioning frenzy. The moment where Billie Jean, distraught, pulls down a poster and looks at the illustration of herself in front of a target perfectly captures that idea. The original motives for their refusing to give in are lost, as if they mattered at all anymore. The reality had been destroyed and replaced by myth, but Billie Jean wants nothing more than to return to the humble life she once knew.

Pat Benatar is said to really berate this movie before performing “Invincible” at concerts, though this might indicate an underlying, unwanted contractual obligation to work on the film (or some other manner of being professionally wrong with regards to this movie). It can hardly be called the worst movie of its kind ever made (Fatal Rescue instead deserves that title). It’s heavy-handed, exaggerated adventure, and entertaining enough all the same.

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