Directed By: Matthew Robbins
Starring: Helen Slater, Christian Slater, Keith Gordon
Tag line: "The last thing she ever expected was to become a hero"
Trivia: A dance rave sequence was filmed, but cut from the final finished version of the movie
The Legend of Billie Jean is a teenager’s fantasy. Well, an ‘80s-era teenager, anyway; there’s a good chance that kids nowadays will roll their eyes at some of what happens in this movie. And it's not just the youngsters who'll have issues with it, either (my eyes were rolling quite a bit as well).
That's not to say this 1985 film is a total dud. In fact, there were things about it that I really liked. But for the most part, The Legend of Billie Jean was pretty damn silly.
Billie Jean Davy (Helen Slater) and her younger brother Binx (Christian Slater) live with their mother (Mona Lee Fultz) in a trailer park in Corpus Christi, Texas. They are harassed on a daily basis by Hubie (Barry Tubb) and his pals, who go so far as to steal Binx’s beloved moped and vandalize it. In a fit of rage, Binx runs off to get his revenge, causing a concerned Billie Jean to head straight to the police. Though sympathetic, Det. Ringwald (Peter Coyote) says there’s not much he can do at this point and tells Billie Jean to go home and wait for her brother.
But when Binx returns battered and bloody, Billie Jean decides enough is enough, and confronts Hubie’s father, store owner Mr. Pyatt (Richard Bradford), demanding that he pay to repair her brother’s moped. Instead of helping, Mr. Pyatt tries to rape Billie Jean, resulting in a confrontation during which Binx pulls a gun and fires it. Now wanted criminals, Billie Jean and Binx hit the road along with their friends Ophelia (Martha Gehman) and Putter (Yeardley Smith), with plans to leave Corpus Christi once and for all.
But something happens when the local media gets hold of the story. While the adults in town want to see the siblings locked away for good, the kids of Corpus Christi take an instant liking to Billie Jean and begin to idolize her. Their standing as cult heroes is further solidified when, one evening, Billie Jean, Binx, and the others break into a mansion belonging to Lloyd (Keith Gordon), a wannabe filmmaker and the son of the State’s District Attorney (Dean Stockwell). Instead of turning them in, Lloyd agrees to become their “hostage”, and during their travels together he shoots video of Billie Jean, which is then delivered to various news organizations in Corpus Christi. In the videos, Billie Jean says she only wants justice, and for Mr. Pyatt to pay for the damages to Binx’s moped. But will Billie Jean get what she’s after, or will she and the others end up in jail for a very, very long time?
The best thing about The Legend of Billie Jean is its cast. Helen Slater brings a genuine likability to Billie Jean, giving the movie a hero you can root for; and a 15-year-old Christian Slater (making his big-screen debut) is equally good as her hot-headed younger brother. Along with the two Slaters (despite playing siblings here, they are not related in real life), Yeardley Smith (the voice of Lisa in The Simpsons) is memorable as the boisterous Putter, who joins Billie Jean and Binx on their adventure; and Keith Gordon, playing their friend and hostage Lloyd, proves that the exceptional work he did in Dressed to Kill and Christine was no fluke. As for the adults, Richard Bradford is awesome as the villain (I really wanted to punch his character, Mr Pyatt, who is a slimeball in almost every scene), but the best performance is delivered by Peter Coyote as Det. Ringwald, the kindly cop tasked with bringing the young fugitives to justice.
In addition to the cast, The Legend of Billie Jean has a kick-ass ‘80s soundtrack, headed up by Pat Benatar's “Invincible” (the film’s official theme song); and director Matthew Robbins handles the initial scenes (the moped’s destruction and Billie Jean’s attempt to collect the repair money) quite well, getting the movie off to a great start.
It’s the second half of The Legend of Billie Jean where things begin to fall apart. I had no problem with the movie making Billie Jean a sort of folk hero, but instead of taking this aspect of the story and using it as social commentary (misunderstood youth lashing out) or even a criticism of the media’s role in glorifying lawbreakers (a la Natural Born Killers), the filmmakers give us a series of absurd scenes that transform Billie Jean into a bonafide superhero! In what is easily the movie's most ridiculous sequence, Billie Jean is led by a group of kids (that she never met before) to the house of a young boy who is being abused by his alcoholic father. What does Billie Jean do? She marches into the house and confronts the father, demanding that he let the son leave with her! Intended to be inspirational, this scene was so heavy-handed that it actually made me chuckle. And while most motion pictures, to one degree or another, require a suspension of disbelief, The Legend of Billie Jean wants us to stick our collective heads in the sand, accepting that its lead character can interact with every kid in Corpus Christi (who crowd around her by the dozen) while at the same time avoiding the police, who are out in force looking for her.
I give Robbins and the screenwriters (Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner) points for their earnest attempt to make The Legend of Billie Jean a Bonnie and Clyde for the younger generation, and had I seen this movie in 1985 I probably would’ve loved it; being a teenager myself at the time, its message of youthful rebellion would have undoubtedly won me over. But I’m well past fitting into this film’s ideal demographic, and my adult sensibilities wouldn’t allow me to ignore its weaknesses, no matter how hard I tried.