The Legend of Billie Jean

When it comes to the 80’s, “The Legend of Billie Jean” may be the ultimate forgotten film.  One of the many many teen films of the decade, it was forgotten shortly after it was released in 1985.  Thanks to home video and cable TV, many kids of the 80’s discovered the film.  But then VHS changed to DVD, and the film never ended up being released on the new format.  This kept the film unknown to the next generation of movie fans.  Some internet rumors even claim that singer Pat Benetar, who’s song “Invincible” is a major part of the film’s soundtrack, was responsible for holding up the DVD release over music rights issues.  Who knows if that’s true or the stuff of legend…whatever it is, this 80’s film “legend” has finally made it to DVD.

The film centers on two Corpus Christi, TX trailer park teens, Billie Jean Davy (Helen Slater) and her brother Binks (Christian Slater).  Side note: this is the film probably most responsible for the false belief by many that Helen and Christian are siblings.  Binks’ prized possession is a fancy scooter.  One hot day, while grabbing a milkshake at a local drive-in, Billie Jean and Binks are harassed by local jerk Hubie Pyatt (Barry Tubb).  Binks responds by tossing the shake in Hubie’s face.  Later that day, while the siblings swim in the pond, Hubie and his buddies swipe the scooter.

That night, Binks goes to get the scooter back, while Billie Jean and her friends Ophelia (Martha Gehman) and Putter (Yeardley Smith) go to the police.  Detective Ringwald (Peter Coyote) is convinced that Hubie is just trying to get Billie Jean’s attention and that the scooter will soon be returned.  When she gets back to the trailer park, Billie Jean finds the scooter trashed and Binks bloodied.

A few days later, Billie Jean and company go to confront Hubie and his father (Richard Bradford) with a bill fo $608…the cost to repair the scooter.  Mr. Pyatt runs a souvenir shop down on the beach.  Mr. Pyatt tells Billie Jean to follow him up to his office ‘cause he doesn’t keep that kind of cash in the register.  Yeah…big mistake there Billie Jean.  Of course, uber slime ball Mr. Pyatt tries to get friendly with the trailer park beauty.  Meanwhile, Binks and Ophelia have made their way into the store, and found the gun Pyatt keeps in the register.  When cornered, Pyatt claims the gun is not loaded, but as Binks tries to examine it, he accidentally shoots Mr. Pyatt in the shoulder.

Now the teens are on the run.  They quickly head back to the trailer to pick up some stuff, and Putter, before camping out in a run-down mini golf place.  Detective Ringwald is on the case, but knows that Mr. Pyatt and Hubie are not as innocent in all this as they claim to be.  Meanwhile, as Billie Jean becomes the biggest news in the history of Corpus Christi, Pyatt begins selling Billie Jean merchandise at his beachfront store.

After Pyatt botches an attempt to get Billie Jean to surrender at a mall, the gang hides in a mansion that appears to be empty.  In reality, a teenager  named Lloyd (Keith Gordon) is hiding in his room with his collection of horror masks and video equipment.  Turns out, Lloyd is the son of the district attorney (Dean Stockwell).

While they are at the house, Billie Jean is inspired by watching a Joan of Arc movie to cut her hair and film a video to set the record straight.  The video airs on every TV station and soon, just about every teenage girl in Texas is cutting her hair short and modeling the look of Billie Jean.  Lloyd decides to tag along with the gang, posing as a “hostage,”  as they try to get the $608…cause after all “fair is fair!”

“The Legend of Billie Jean” can only be called a guilty pleasure.  I love this movie, but I can’t call it a good movie.  There are many problems with the story.  I mean, somehow this gang is able to evade the cops, yet they stand out like a sore thumb.  They even drive around in a station wagon with the logo of the trailer park they live in on the side!  The cops can’t spot that!?!  The gang also doesn’t exactly try to keep out of sight.  The strangest example is the scene in which a group of kids (like 100 or so) march down the street with Billie Jean to rescue a young boy from his abusive father.  And while we’re on the subject of story problems, I also could never understand why when Billie Jean makes her video, she never bothers to mention that the shooting was accidental, and that her brother was trying to defend her from a scuz ball that was trying to rape her!!

One of the strangest aspects of the film is the character of Putter.  Yeardley Smith, the future Lisa Simpson, was right about twenty years old when she made this film, yet she’s playing a part that seems to have been written for an eleven year old.  She wears overalls and pigtails and her dialogue contains several moments of naive sailor talk that was common for young kid characters in the 80’s.  Her strangest scene, though, is when Putter has her first period in the middle of a chase in which a yocal with a shotgun takes justice into his own hands.  Billie Jean, at first, thinks Putter has been shot, but it’s just the monthly visitor.  The scene is awkward for everyone, including the audience.  Yeardley Smith has always looked young, but she is clearly not THAT young.  I will say that the character does have some funny moments, yet the audience is never exactly sure how to wrap their brains around this character.

Yes, the story has its problems, but just like another forgotten flick, “Supergirl,” this movie goes a long way on the likability of Helen Slater.  She’s beautiful, strong, and her performance is very believable.  It is no stretch of the imagination that a community would rally behind her.  On the other side of the coin, Richard Bradford, as Mr. Pyatt, is also great in one of the slimiest roles of the 80’s.  He just oozes evil!  One moment he’s trying to force himself on Billie Jean and the next he’s selling T-shirts with her picture on them.  He’s one of the great villains of the 80’s, in my opinion.

I think most viewers either love “The Legend of Billie Jean,” or end up thinking of it as one of those “so-bad-it’’s-good” movies.  Either way, you’ll have fun with it.

4 thoughts on “The Legend of Billie Jean

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  1. Helen Slater *is* extremely likeable. I caught this a couple of years ago, and besides one good Pat Benatar song and Slater, it’s pretty laughable.

    1. According to Wikipedia’s page on the movie, Benetar can’t stand this film and was the one keeping it from DVD. Don’t know if Wikipedia can be trusted on that one, but it makes for an interesting story.

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