The internet is choked with nostalgia for the youth-oriented entertainments of the not-too-distant past. With Memory Wipe, The A.V. Club takes a look at some of our formative favorites with clearer eyes and asks that all-important question: Were they really that great to begin with?
It says something impressive and worrying when a young Helen Hunt, wearing a coonskin cap while playing a teenage Catholic schoolgirl, dragging Sarah Jessica Parker across the floor isn’t even in the top 20 weirdest things about a film. It’s practically glossed over, in fact, despite my desire to instantly stop streaming the movie and text every person I have ever met in my entire life and tell them about this. This is only the halfway point of the movie, and already, I’m not sure I can handle it all.
Then a nun hops on a pommel horse.
I haven’t watched Girls Just Want To Have Fun, the 1985 film about girls who want—well, you know—since I was maybe 10 years old. I watched it only once, when my babysitter knew my parents had a VCR and decided to take advantage of that fact, bringing the film with her as our activity for the night. I remember something about Sarah Jessica Parker and a dance contest, and thinking it was a very long but mildly fun party movie, confusing but spritely. The details are hazy: I’d completely forgotten the movie until last week, when some random internet meme reminded me of its existence and triggered the long-lost memory of seeing it. And once recovered, I couldn’t shake it, which led me to believe it was imperative I revisit the film, to see if it was as fun as my dim youthful memory suggested—and more important, to figure out if my vague recollection of Helen Hunt riding an elephant at the end of the movie was real. It seemed too weird to be true.
I discovered that not only is Girls Just Want To Have Fun a delightful party of a movie, it’s an absolutely bonkers party, like someone dosed the punch with ecstasy and mushrooms. There are events in this movie that make no earthly sense, but it doesn’t matter in the slightest, because it’s just that much fun. I instantly regret not murdering my babysitter and stealing her VHS tape of this film, as my childhood would have been immensely improved by watching it weekly. Possibly daily. But now, as a grown-ass man, I can say, my vague and faulty memory didn’t begin to do the movie justice.
This collection of Me Decade Mad Libs disguised as a movie tells the story of Janey Glenn (an ebullient Sarah Jessica Parker, looking even younger than she did in the previous year’s Footloose), the oft-moving daughter of a military man, whose family finally makes a 12th move to Chicago, city of Janey’s dreams. Janey worships the city because that’s where her favorite show, Dance TV, is filmed, and it’s easy to see why it’s her dearest pleasure in life. The film’s Dance TV is like a cross between American Bandstand and a Jane Fonda workout tape, but with a fanaticism approaching religious zealotry levels. Every chance we get to see the show in action is glorious.
Allow me to direct your attention to Dance TV’s passing resemblance to a more recent appropriation of old dance/workout culture:
And that’s all in the first 10 minutes of the movie. We’re just getting warmed up—much like the dancers in this film, I would say, but these people don’t need to warm up so much as make sure they’re not going into debt on what is undoubtedly a massive budget for cocaine. “Dance like no one’s watching” takes on new meaning in this movie, which features people dancing not only as though no one was watching, but also as if they’ve never seen dancing in their lives, and were instructed to make it up from scratch. And make it up they do, from the initial audition scene starring a cast of hundreds and an outdoor stage perfect for doing every type of dance imaginable, especially once the competition begins. (Apparently Dance TV needs ballet, in the eyes of some.) It’s difficult to say how this tryout was organized, but it’s executed with the smooth precision of a mass lemming suicide.
And while the caffeinated freneticism of everyone else’s moves are startling enough on their own, Sarah Jessica Parker (or her stunt double, more accurately) has Janey dance in a way that is inexplicable. Although Janey blows everyone away at the audition, but the move that earns her the pass to the finals isn’t inventive. In fact, it’s not even dancing. She wins a dance competition by doing gymnastics, which even in 1985 I’d wager were understood to be two separate things. Not in the world of Girls Just Want To Have Fun, though. Here, it’s like Janey is the first person to realize backflips could exist outside a gym, and no one else has ever seen a backflip in their entire life.
The other element to the story involves Jeff Malene (Lee Montgomery), a blue-collar kid from the wrong side of the tracks, who lives with his single dad and little sister (a young Shannon Doherty, which is both off-putting and strangely appropriate) and secretly dreams of dancing the night away. With his nerdy best friend (Jonathan Silverman), he heads to the auditions, where he too is chosen for the finals, and gets paired with Janey to perform. Do they hate each other at first? They do. Do they squabble and argue, and slowly, through a dance-and-flirt montage, fall in love? They do. Do they dance really well and win the whole thing? They definitely dance, but it’s not what wins them the prize of becoming Dance TV regulars. No, victory stems from—again—the seemingly spellbinding power of just abandoning dance in favor of gymnast moves. Somewhere, the ghost of Bob Fosse is spitting some serious sass at this movie.
But it’s okay, because the outfits more than make up for any dance/gymnastic shenanigans. Jeff is essentially the embodiment of tough-guy ’80s kid, with the 25-year-old Montgomery playing the high-schooler as a cross between Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing and Bruce Springsteen in the “Dancing In The Dark” video, complete with both those guys’ moves. Silverman plays the nebbishy sidekick Drew as a budding young sexual harasser, which was probably hilarious in the mid-’80s but now comes across exactly like you’d imagine him grabbing a girl’s breasts against her will would. (He tells Janey that Jeff’s motorcycle will be the “safest thing you’ll have between your legs” that night. Cool guy. Cool lines.) But really, his shtick is relatively subdued compared to the other cast members, which is not what you want in a broad supporting character.
No, the movie belongs to the girls, and not just because the title tells us so. They’re all so exuberant and ready for anything, the screen physically lightens with their presence. Even Shannon Doherty’s pouty self gets some great moments, like when Drew accidentally hits on her, then defensively calls her a “punk,” to which she happily cries, “Do you really think I’m punk?” In contrast, Janey is portrayed as a goody two-shoes whose need to dance unearths a rebellious streak. As a result, her outfits run the gamut from the school uniform she wears at the beginning to the aerobicizing leotard/tank top combo she’s got on here. Just some casual around-the-house workout gear, for sure.
But this is all mere window-dressing for the film’s true sartorial star. Helen Hunt’s Lynne Stone takes the “wacky best friend” role and cranks it into the red, primarily via fashion choices that would make look-at-me Williamsburg hipsters think, “Hmmm, maybe dial it back a little, there.” One of the first things Lynne does, after meeting Janey, is ask her to hold up her coat on the school bus, so that Lynne can get changed behind it. This involves removing her uniform skirt and putting it on inside-out, and—I shit you not—ripping off the sleeves of her school top like some kind of New Wave-obsessed Incredible Hulk. “Velcro,” she informs Janey and the viewer. “Next to the Walkman and Tab, it’s the coolest invention of the 20th century.” You could try and come up with a more ’80s sentence than that, but it wouldn’t be easy.
Surprisingly, the film’s highlight isn’t the dance-nastics, no matter how endlessly watchable they are. That prize belongs to the comic centerpiece of the movie, which takes place at the mean girl’s debutante ball. Because no teen-girl movie is complete without a bitchy villain, Girls Just Want To Have Fun goes for the tried-and-true tactic of having a rich-bitch antagonist, Natalie, threaten to steal the Dance TV crown away from Janey and Jeff. We’re introduced to her lying in her fancy bed, demanding her dad get her on Dance TV. (Looking at her endless clothes conveyor in the closet: “Decisions are the worst!”) Very soon, she’s almost hitting them with her car, paying off a guy to ruin Lynne’s audition, and squealing on Janey’s secret dance rehearsals to her school and father. By the immutable law of teen movies, this fuckery will not stand. When they see Drew is holding Jeff’s invite to the ball, Janey and Lynne make 150 copies, and hand them out all over the mall and beyond.
Holy hell, is the debutante ball an experience in old-school “this party just got craaaazy!” montage. It kicks off with one of the more insane ways imaginable of crashing a party: Some sort of kung-fu punk rocker literally throws himself through a large bay window, shattering it and landing in the middle of the dance floor. Which, frankly, makes it seem like nobody needed a copy of that invite, if they’re just planning to burst into the room, A-Team style. It’s idiotic and over-the-top in the best possible way, up to and including Jeff pushing a cake right into the face of Natalie’s father, who may as well be shaking his fist and screaming that he’ll get you, you damn kids. Punkers are smashing everything, bodybuilding women lift couches, and even a choreographed “bad kids” dance routine of sorts breaks out. Of course, most of the “uptight” guests are excited by the surprise, but there are plenty of “Well, I never!” moments as well. It’s the epitome of this kind of hammy “mischievous revenge” scenario, and it’s a giddy joy.
There’s plenty of clumsy exposition and jarring character beats, to be sure, and more than a few sequences that defy logic and/or the laws of physics. But Girls Just Want To Have Fun embraces such non sequiturs with a bravado befitting its go-for-broke status. By the time the end rolls around, and Lynne is getting a job replacing Dance TV’s weirdo diva news girl (actual quote: “I lifted music news to the level of art!”), the brain has accepted this cinematic reality, and offered up capitulation to its oddball charms. The last line is even Natalie’s father coming around to sensible parenting: “Why don’t you just shut up,” he tells her, because that’s a happy ending for Janey and Lynne and Jeff. Thankfully, the movie ends before Drew gets a chance to appall everyone with his definition of a happy ending. “Tell me one thing,” Jeff’s factory worker dad asks him about this dance contest. “Can you win?” He sure can, Dad, because—to quote Jeff—it’s “rigged,” with the secret weapon of shameless fun.