My Favorite Year: The Pop Culture Peak That Was 1984

Thirty years ago! Scary! Yet inspiring. (Certainly most millennials I encounter are ripping off that era as fast as their iPad-laden hands can grab.) For your pleasure and edification, I was there (and then), and I reflect.
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"Dearly Beloved, We R gathered here today 2 get through this thing called life..."

Purple Rain -- the film by Albert Magnoli, the album by Prince & the Revolution -- rocked my world in 1984. I had liked Prince since he debuted on American Bandstand and coyly told Dick Clark he played "thousands" of instruments -- but he was still a dubious little dude until his purple reign, when he earned his name and rose to rock royalty. Everybody loved Purple Rain (unless they were stupid or racist or lost): It was the album of that summer, the movie that depicted how we as a generation wanted to feel: raucous and alive and sexy -- not merely hedonistic and icky. ("Take a bath, hippies!" Prince crowed in 1982, on 1999's "All the Critics Love U in New York" -- and although Lil' Purps is a Boomer himself, his mischievous yelps became a clarion call for my generation, or at least for me.)

Speaking of 1982: Not a bad year, either! The geeks will point to its wealth of great movies, and they're right: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Dark Crystal, Poltergeist, Creepshow, The Thing, Tron, even Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I was lukewarm on the celebrated, saccharine E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (and I still want my $39.95 plus tax back for that Atari cartridge!); but I did sneak into Blade Runner on opening weekend -- whereupon Ebert was wrong, but I was right. Meanwhile, popsters worshipped Thriller (whereas I knew my rights with The Clash, and got my brain rearranged by astounding Annabella leading Bow Wow Wow) -- but all these years later, let's face it: Thriller is nice, but it just wishes it could touch the purple hem of Prince's garment.

So we're back to 1984: 30 years ago! Scary! Yet inspiring. (Certainly most millennials I encounter are ripping off that era as fast as their iPad-laden hands can grab.) For your pleasure and edification, I was there (and then), and I reflect:

First of all, you can keep Chinatown and L.A. Confidential -- because the ultimate movie about L.A. (and probably the universe) is Repo Man. 1984, baby, and amazing. "Ordinary fuckin' people," intones senior repo man Harry Dean Stanton to his ward Otto, Emilio Estevez, "I hate 'em." Oh, how we laughed, and related! (Also: "Put it on a plate, dear," drones Otto's TV-zombified mother as he wolfs a generic can of "Food," "you'll enjoy it more." Ha!) Never had I seen the city of alleged dreams depicted with such grimy, accurate lunacy (and yet I moved there anyway). Repo Man is one of the greatest films ever made. Agree or argue all you like in the comments section.

In terms of the year that was 1984, I also feel that Steven Spielberg got his mojo back (directing his lovely wife-to-be, Kate Capshaw). Setting aside his estimable important films, I feel that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is the best movie Spielberg has made (thus far?) -- and I know, you either hate it, or think I'm crazy, or both. Admittedly, we who forked over our modest funds in 1984 felt Temple of Doom to be as jarring as 1983's almost-satisfying Return of the Jedi -- albeit for different reasons. The humor was peculiar, the Gunga Din shout-outs puzzling; its gloriously-Hammer-esque horror scared all the straights into the PG-13 era, plus there was the kid. But you know what? Much like Jedi, Temple of Doom has aged amazingly well: it's a robust, exotic, thrilling adventure -- notably about saving children from evildoers. John Williams' alternately exultant and eerie themes for Raiders of the Lost Ark got even better when blended with the ersatz-Eastern themes of Temple of Doom. And Jonathan Ke Quan as Short Round? Watch it again -- he's totally great! Apart from that crazy overabundance of dust on the perilous rope bridge, I love Temple of Doom, and I'd say so on a first date (even if that makes it a last date).

On a lighter note, zeitgeist-bottler John Hughes' directorial career launched in 1984, with Sixteen Candles. Say what you will (and I'm guessing you will), but ohhh: funny! And kinda weirdly moving -- for that short span of years, yet another Boomer "got" (and/or exploited) us: What was ridiculous, hopeful, longing in Gen-X -- during an era when the concept of know-it-all kids gazing zombielike into portable telephones was altogether unimaginable. I haven't the space here for a full consideration of infamous character-caricature Long Duk Dong -- but do allow me to state that actor Gedde Watanabe brings as much awe as humor to the much-debated role. I think he's a scream, and he's got a wonderful face. And I'm sincerely sorry if any enthusiasm over the portrayal has caused offense. ("Lake! Big lake!")

Even in terms of unwashed entertainment, 1984 delivered, as with Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. (Psst: Check today's date. Spooky.) Yes, the alleged "Final" chapter of the series that wouldn't die is similar to the rest of the Friday the 13th movies in terms of, um, plot, and, um, character -- but it's still wickedly entertaining. We sat in awe of the skinny-dipping sequence. We roared for Crispin Glover's synaptically-challenged seduction dance. And we got the unexpected: Corey Feldman genuinely freaking us out. Heck, this third sequel even outgrossed 1984's original A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Incidentally, if the producers of the Indiana Jones and Friday the 13th series would like to hear my pitches for the satisfying continuation of these respective sagas, I was there, I know where to go next, and I'm your man.

Briefly back to music: Of course, 1984 saw Bruce Springsteen captivating the unimaginative with his Born in the U.S.A. proletarian prattle (has that "workin' man" ever held a real job?) Happily, from Sade to the Scorpions to the Smiths, much more sincere-sounding pop also prevailed. Queen soared anew with The Works. We even got a poppy, off-kilter Oingo Boingo album in the form of Danny Elfman's excellent one-off L.P., So-Lo. Plus the residual music from prior years: it was sensational! (And please note, as with cinema, these pop appraisals mainly address Western culture -- as most Eastern and global stuff was not, at that time, reaching me. Here in the 21st century, these are much better days, in those terms.)

Oh: My fave novel ever was published in 1984; my fave album ever released in 1984 -- but each is an essay unto itself (hint: I've already written of both creators).

In terms of 1984's excellent movies, I could go on at great length (Beverly Hills Cop, Footloose, Gremlins, even Michael Radford's bleakly-impressive adaptation of Orwell's 1984 itself, with Eurythmics' songs wafting like ghosts in the mix) -- but, kind readers, let us efficiently wrap up the best of the best, because ADD seems a smidge more prevalent today than it was three decades ago.

Ghostbusters: Do crowd-pleasing movies get any better than this? I doubt it. Pure love. Dan! Bill! Ernie! Annie! Rick! Sigourney! And Harold Ramis -- "I'm terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought" -- you are greatly missed: Egon but not forgotten.

Dune: Another brilliant film I'll happily rave up on a first date. You can keep your Jodorowsky -- herein David Lynch created a classic of sci-fi atmosphere and astonishment. Lynch's best film, Dune astounds.

Amadeus: Even 30 years later, if you need to appear cultured (on, say, a second date), all you need to do is watch Milos Foreman's explosive take on Peter Shaffer's Mozart 'n' Salieri, and discuss passionately. Thanks, guys!

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock: Masterpiece. Allegedly Ronald Reagan hated it, and that may speak volumes. I love this first of director Leonard "Spock" Nimoy's two glorious Star Trek features. The Search for Spock operatically summons themes of death and rebirth in a film as mystical and thrilling as Nimoy's The Voyage Home (1986) is hilarious and humane. "All my hopes." "Go, Sulu!" Real Star Trek. In a word: Genius.

I close with two more masterpieces of 1984 -- both (as with Purple Rain) delivering cinema and songs. 1984 unleashed Rob Reiner's infinitely-quotable mockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap. There've been three decades of funny since then (evolving and devolving), but Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer as oblivious metalheads still stun with their inspired idiocy. Go on, start quoting. You know you want to. ("It's called 'Lick My Love Pump.'" There. You're welcome.)

And lastly comes the pop-cultural document dearest to my heart. Talking Heads had been astounding little-boy me since 1978, when American Top 40's Casey Kasem delivered "Take Me to the River" unto us radio faithful, and KROQ's pop powerhouse Rodney Bingenheimer conducted a classic interview with the band. By Remain in Light (1980) and Speaking in Tongues (a.k.a. SP EAK IN GI N TO NGU ES, 1983), the band stylized as TA LKI N GHE ADS were going where no band had gone before, melding pop, punk, rock, R&B, soul, blues, dancefloor gold, and indefinable artsiness into sounds which did not previously exist. Along with the launch of Tom Tom Club (including Heads founders Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth), David Byrne and Jerry Harrison redefined what pop could be. (Rolling Stone aptly called them "America's Best Band.") The culmination of this phase arose in the form of Jonathan Demme's stunning STOP MAKING SENSE: a concert film unlike any other, plus its accompanying soundtrack album -- which proved ubiquitous amongst smart and groovy people. I was (ahem) in "Heaven" -- one of the first songs I ever learned to play. And it would take more essays yet to tell you how musicians Alex Weir and Bernie Worrell, and vocalists Edna Holt and Lynn Mabry, forever augmented my world. Put simply, STOP MAKING SENSE is still the biggest lightning-bolt of "You can do THAT?!" in my adult life. And though tastes change and opinions are inherently subjective, STOP MAKING SENSE, like Purple Rain, still sounds fresher than anything on the radio today.

Pardon the pretense, but, hey, artists: There's the standard. There's your challenge. Go!


~Gregory: Who survived the ghastly '90s, and lives to tell of prior excellence.

P.S. Thanks to Dennis Palumbo, Norman Steinberg, Richard Benjamin, Mel Brooks, et al. -- for the nice headline.

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