What to Read: Drew McWeeny is watching every ’80s movie
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What’s your Substack about in one sentence?
The Last ’80s Newsletter (You’ll Ever Need) is an experiment in deep-dive film criticism designed to reframe the conversation around a movie decade that was far more adventurous and diverse than current nostalgia would suggest.
What inspired you to start a publication that covers every film released in the 1980s?
When people talk about the ’80s in film, they’re really talking about the same 50 or 60 films: Ghostbusters. Gremlins. Goonies. Beverly Hills Cop. Top Gun. The Karate Kid. Nostalgia for the decade has become fossilized to a large degree, and that’s a shame. The 1980s are a fascinating decade. The auteurs of the ’70s were still making movies, but the blockbuster blood frenzy was slowly taking over the industry. That collision, along with the advent of the home video market, changed the entire landscape of movies, and the only way to really discuss the breadth of the decade is to go back and look at everything—big, small, famous, obscure. It’s a totally different picture, and you quickly realize that there was so much more going on, and some of what we’ve forgotten was genuinely amazing.
A lot of it wasn’t, of course, and another part of this is the way we get to look at the most problematic moments of that decade from the perspective of today, giving us a better idea of just how crazy much of the pop culture that shaped us really was.
What is it about that decade in particular that captures your imagination?
I was 10 years old at the start of the decade. By the time it ended, I was on the verge of moving to Los Angeles to start my career. Almost everything I learned about both movies and audiences, I learned during the ’80s. I learned it from sitting in theaters and working in theaters and soaking up anything I could lay eyes on.
It was a fascinating era for pop culture because we were such a proudly, happily conservative country, with Reagan providing this towering presence that much of our culture then reacted to, both positively and negatively. Because everything was so conservative on the surface, the subversion was constant and amazing, and it resulted in art like Blue Velvet and Do the Right Thing and Repo Man, movies that stand in firm opposition to the mainstream. The rise of the music video changed the aesthetics of Hollywood forever, and the Cold War kept us all terrified, as did the rising threat of AIDS. You look at the pop culture that dominates the conversation about the ’80s, and it’s the safe, feel-good, plastic stuff. I love Back to the Future, but that’s not the whole story.
Read Drew’s recap of the films released over one week in May 1980.
You’ve estimated that it might take 10 years to write about every film released in the ’80s. How are you approaching a project of that magnitude?
I tried doing this once before as a podcast, and the problem was that the workload eventually overwhelmed all of us who were working on it. At the time we started ’80s All Over, we had no idea just how much work it was going to be. This time around, I’m walking in with my eyes wide open, and I am ready to make it to the finish line. The first thing I did was track down all of the movies that are going to be covered—over 2,800 in total—and in some cases, it took almost five years to locate the most obscure of them.
“The only way to really discuss the breadth of the decade is to go back and look at everything—big, small, famous, obscure.”
If there was a place that had accurate release dates for every film of the ’80s with a description of each one, I would not have to do this, but now that I know there’s no such place, I find myself absolutely obsessed by the idea that I can create the ultimate reference guide to one of the most discussed decades in movie history.
In a weird way, this is also going to serve as a memoir of sorts. I grew up during the years this project will cover, and each month starts with some autobiographical information to help paint a personal picture of what it was like soaking all of this up the first time around. I think it’s that emotional throughline that makes all of the hard work feel rewarding.
What are some little-known ’80s movies that you think are worth a (re)watch?
There are so many! I love it when someone takes a chance on something like Mike’s Murder or Cutter’s Way or Five Corners because they heard about it or read about it. I love it when I discover something like Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains or Times Square that still feels fresh and dangerous and alive, something I didn’t even see the first time around.
There are wonderful thrillers that people never talk about today like Road Games, and forgotten action gems like Stallone’s Nighthawks or the uber-grimy Vice Squad. I love Alan Parker’s Birdy, which features a fantastic early performance by Nicolas Cage and one of the best last lines of any movie of the decade. Parker’s Shoot the Moon got sidelined by Paramount’s Oscar run for Warren Beatty’s Reds, and it’s a damn shame because it features what may well be the best work Diane Keaton ever did. I can’t wait to write about the Jim Henson puppets in the crazy Lewis Carroll movie Dreamchild or Laura Dern’s breakthrough work in Smooth Talk or David Byrne’s dizzy-in-love musical look at small-town eccentrics, True Stories.
“I find myself absolutely obsessed by the idea that I can create the ultimate reference guide to one of the most discussed decades in movie history.”
There are so many movies from the ’80s that I want to make sure to spotlight so they are watched and remembered. This is cultural archaeology, and if we don’t talk about the smaller films we love deeply that no one else does, there’s a chance they disappear for good.
Who’s another Substack writer you’d recommend?
I would urge people to check out The Reveal. If you are tired of clickbait-driven movie writing that is just designed to sell you things, the guys who previously brought you The A.V. Club and The Dissolve are determined to prove that good writing will be supported by faithful readers. I subscribed the moment they launched, and I urge you to do the same.
Subscribe to Drew’s publication, The Last ’80s Newsletter (You’ll Ever Need), and find him on Twitter. You can read more of his writing about movies on his other Substack publication, Formerly Dangerous.