September 1980 kicks things off with a whole lotta rock'n'roll
Plus Altman's back and Sayles gets serious
The premise is simple, but the task is not. Every single movie released in the United States during the 1980s, reviewed in chronological order, published month by month.
Buckle up, because this is The Last ‘80s Newsletter You’ll Ever Need…
The very first United Negro College Fund was established.
Bob Marley gave his final concert at the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh.
Chevy Chase famously called Cary Grant a homo on the Tomorrow show and got sued for it.
The Big Thunder Mountain Railroad opened at Disneyland.
And, finally, billions and billions of minds were blown when Carl Sagan’s Cosmos premiered on PBS.
By the time September began, I was back in school and there were fewer opportunities to get to the theater.
That’s probably for the best. It was not a month that was aimed at ten-year-old Drew. There were a few things I was interested in. For some reason, I was fixated on Melvin & Howard. There was something about the underlying idea that really hooked me. My reaction to the film when I saw it was largely one of confusion. Now… how does a ten-year-old get fixated on a Jonathan Demme movie about Howard Hughes? Well, it helps that I was a giant weirdo. I read anything even tangentially related to movies that entered the house, and my mom bought a lot of magazines. I learned to find the film reviews in even the unlikeliest publications, and I read reviews of anything. I didn’t care what it was. I just liked reading descriptions of films. I liked imagining what they might be.
I had also discovered Siskel and Ebert by this point, and I was an addict. I like rewatching these old episodes even now, especially from that early Sneak Previews era. By the time they created their second show, they were starting to really figure out the whole TV thing, and the thumbs up/thumbs down idea really focused the show. In the early days, they were just two guys genuinely arguing every week about movies and it was the most electrifying thing I had ever seen. When you look at the shows now, they’re not cut the way you’d cut a modern review show, and they give both guys plenty of space to share their very personal views on film culture. They didn’t review Melvin & Howard until February of 1981, a testament to the way film distribution worked at that point, so chances are I was not obsessed with it at this particular point. I remember reading so much about the movie, though, that I started checking newspapers every Friday hoping it would roll into our city at some point. What made Sneak Previews different than a newspaper review was the film clips and I lived for those clips. Sometimes, those would be all I’d see of a film for years, especially if I couldn’t convince my parents to take me to see it.
Film culture in the early ‘80s often involved waiting for things if you didn’t live in one of the primary markets in America. Putting this newsletter together, I use Los Angeles as the anchor point for release dates. There’s no way to pin things down to a national release date for every single title because that’s not how it worked. You’d often see a studio strike a couple of hundred prints of a film, even for a big film, and those prints would circulate to different markets, rolling out over time instead of opening everywhere all at once. That was starting to happen thanks to the changing landscape of distribution post-Jaws and post-Star Wars, but there were more movies that rolled out slowly than there were landing on 1500 screens at one pop. You had to work for it if you wanted to see everything, and depending on how small something was, you might never get the chance to see it in a local theater. At this point, I was living in Chattanooga. We weren’t the smallest market in the country, but we weren’t in the first round of things when films rolled out in limited release. If I was really manic about something, I could sometimes convince my parents or find some other way to get a ride to Atlanta to see something since Atlanta would get films before us on occasion.
It was a very different time culturally. When I think of the things I was watching and reading at ten, I am amazed. It wasn’t that my parents were extraordinarily permissive, either. They weren’t. They definitely had plenty of things they would not let me see and plenty of reasons that things were placed off-limits. They had shown me Young Frankenstein by this point, and I loved it dearly. When the first posters appeared for In God We Trust, I wanted to see it because it looked like a wacky Marty Feldman romp. That got vetoed very quickly, as did anything irreverent that was directed at organized religion. That was a particularly sore subject for them, and I lost any fight on the subject. I did not go see Divine Madness with my parents, but I did check the soundtrack out from the library. My mom assumed it was the music from the film, and as we listened to it on the car’s cassette player on the way home, everyone was having a great time until we got to the Sophie Tucker jokes. “My boyfriend says to me the other night, ‘Sophie, you’ve got no tits and a tight box.’ ‘Ernie,’ I says, ‘get off my back.’” She almost drove off the road trying to get that tape out of the player, but you’d better believe I’ve never forgotten the joke.
The one movie I did manage to talk them into letting me see this month was Ordinary People. I don’t know why, but it seemed like the movie that people were discussing and they decided it would be okay. I spent most of Oscar season being irritated by Redford’s film, but I’m not sure what I was rooting for instead. I know it wasn’t Raging Bull, which I only came to love later. My guess is I was dead set on Empire Strikes Back or The Elephant Man as Best Picture, and at that age, I still took it personally when I disagreed with the Academy.
On that note, let’s get into the wildly mixed bag that kicked off the fall season for this, the first year of this newsletter project.
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith
Tommy Lewis, Freddy Reynolds, Ray Barrett, Jack Thompson, Angela Punch McGregor, Steve Dodd, Peter Carroll, Ruth Cracknell, Don Crosby, Elizabeth Alexander, Peter Sumner, Tim Robertson, Ray Meagher, Brian Anderson, Jane Harders, Julie Dawson, Jack Charles, Arthur Dignam, Robyn Nevin, Gregory Apps, Jillian Archer, John Bowman, Bryan Brown, Michael Carman, Bill Charlton, Liddy Clark, Aileen Corpus, Matthew Crosby, Marshall Crosby, Zona Dixon, Ian Gilmour, Ken Grant, Alan Hardy, Lauren Hutton, John Jarratt, Phemise Jonas, James Keneally, Thomas Keneally, Hagar Laikburner, Katie Lilley, Rose Lilley, Terry McDermott, Lorraine Mafi-Williams, Ray Marshall, Zac Martin, Justine Saunders, Alexandra Schepisi, Rob Steele, Richard Ussher, Wesley Williams, Barbara Wyndon
cinematography by Ian Baker
music by Bruce Smeaton
screenplay by Fred Schepisi
based on the novel by Thomas Keneally
produced by Fred Schepisi
directed by Fred Schepisi
1 hr 48 mins
A young Aboriginal man lashes out against harsh racial discrimination and ends up an outlaw, on the run. Based on a true story.
Even though this did very well at the Cannes Film Festival, it took over two years to make it to the United States. It was worth the wait, though. Fred Schepisi’s incendiary film should be required viewing, and not just in Australia. He adapted Thomas Keneally’s novel, and if you recognize the author’s name, it’s likely because of Schindler’s List. This is another urgent, difficult story pulled from history, drawn from the life of Jimmy Governor, and it features a tremendous central performance by Tommy Lewis.