It pains me to admit it, but “classic 80s movies”, as a genre, are a bit of a knowledge gap for me. Quite recently a friend was telling me that her husband and his family hadn’t ever seen Footloose, and I shamefacedly admitted that I hadn’t, either. I was a kid in the 80s, making me too young to see many of the great teen films when they were released, and I haven’t done the greatest job of playing catch-up.
Regardless, when I learned about Life Moves Pretty Fast … I immediately added it to my “to-read” list. What I have seen of 80s movies I love, and any discussion of lessons learned from such movies as Dirty Dancing, The Princess Bride, Pretty in Pink, Ghostbusters, and of course, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is going to be a good time, right?
One-word review: YES. I made the comment on social media that I was two chapters in but already wanted to marry this book. Hadley Freeman is a fun and engaging writer, and she LOVES 80s movies. So much so that one of my main criticisms of the book is that she seems to love them to the exclusion of most movies made before or since. I can appreciate that you want to sell your argument that a particular period in film history was highly influential and will likely never be replicated, but she spends a little too much time trying to convince her reader that all other movies are simply no good. Or maybe I’m just sensitive because she blames Clueless for ruining the teen movie genre, and states that “all superhero movies take themselves too seriously.” And she seems to hate Robert Downey, Jr (who might deserve it). But I digress.
Each chapter of the book features a movie made in the 80s (there are several more in addition to those I’ve listed) and ascribes to each a valuable life lesson. For instance the chapter on Steel Magnolias is subtitled “Women Are Interesting.” She then dissects the movie (or sometimes movies) specified with regard to their subject matter, their relevance both at the time and today, and delves a bit into the workings of the film industry. She was also able to interview a lot of the actors and directors from the time period, which adds a great layer of authenticity to her ideas. A common theme throughout the book is that a lot of the movies made in the 80s would simply not get made in today’s blockbuster market. Many of our favorite classics are, when you think about it, pretty weird movies that even indie filmmakers might consider a stretch in this day and age. A lot of that, according to Freeman’s research, has to do with the fact that the American market for movies has been constantly shrinking, and studios are more interested in making movies that can translate to the international market in order to recoup their costs. As much as I didn’t enjoy the suggestion that superhero movies are bad and are destroying cinema, it’s a difficult point to argue with. It is pretty hard to imagine a movie like When Harry Met Sally being made the same way today (her indictment on rom-coms is damning and, in my opinion, spot-on).
Negativity aside, her commentary on the themes of these movies is impressive and well-presented. Two chapters in particular stood out to me: Dirty Dancing (Abortions Happen and That’s Just Fine) and “Eddie Murphy’s Eighties Movies” (Race Can Be Transcended). In the former, her thesis is essentially that Dirty Dancing is a feminist movie, and she sells it completely. The main character, Baby, is fully embracing her agency and her sexuality, and the film reflects that across the board. Think about male gaze versus female gaze here. Who is objectified by the camera? Hint: it’s not Baby. At no time does the abortion subplot pass judgment on the woman having the procedure – rather it blames the guy who refuses to take responsibility. It’s easy enough to think of Dirty Dancing as a fun and fluffy piece of entertainment but the way Freeman sees it (and the way its writer intended), it was astonishingly ahead of its time and is still an example to films being made today.
Similarly, her chapter on Eddie Murphy looks at the ways in which some movies in the 80s were actually more open-minded and progressive than now. She examines Murphy’s meteoric rise to stardom at a time when there were very few people of color in the industry. Eddie Murphy “succeeded” Richard Pryor as Hollywood’s black comedic talent, and he paved the way for many of the stars who came afterward. A number of the films that became megahits for Murphy were originally intended to feature white men (most notably Beverly Hills Cop), but by casting Murphy instead, the films were fundamentally changed and were perhaps huge hits because they starred him. The flip side of this transcendance, Freeman argues, is that Eddie Murphy became so emblematic of blackness that he lost his artistic freedom, and in opening the door to other talented people of color, he ultimately canceled out his own success (hence the “terrible” but lucrative films made later in his career).
Other readers may not value the ideological arguments made in this book as much as I did, but for me, a frank discussion of the ways in which Hollywood has progressed (or regressed, more to the point) was welcome in today’s climate. Life Moves Pretty Fast was written in 2015, and so I spent a lot of time wondering what Freeman would think of movies made more recently that seemingly represent steps forward in terms of women’s place in film (she liked but didn’t love 2016’s Ghostbusters reboot, and I really want to know if she watches GLOW) or the more-recent surge in films made by and for people of color. Beyond those serious topics, the book is a fun memoir of someone who grew up with these movies and found much to love in them. Mixed in among the chapters are lists like “Top Ten Fashion Moments” and “Top Five Eighties Steve Guttenberg Moments” which are hilarious. If nothing else, I feel I’ve been handed a great list of movies to catch up on. For fans of movies, the eighties, and/or eighties movies, Life Moves Pretty Fast is a must-read.