If you grew up during the 1980’s and someone were to ask ‘what is the most ‘80’s movie ever made’, what would you pick? It would be tempting for many to reach into the obvious John Hughes basket, heading straight for The Breakfast Club or Sixteen Candles. Or perhaps your go-to 80’s avatar is John Cusack in a classic like Better Off Dead.
Reasonable choices to be sure, but I’m here to tell you that the most 80’s film ever made – the one best representing the zeitgeist of the 80’s as well as every filmmaking convention of the decade – is The Secret of My Succe$s. Don’t argue with me. I’m right.
Let me be clear. I’m not saying it’s the most iconic or the most memorable and I’m most definitely not saying it’s the best movie of the 1980’s. I’m simply saying this film deserves the title of The Most 80’s Film Ever Made. Let me lay out my case.
Exhibit A: The title track.
Two words: Night. Ranger. The song and the accompanying music video alone should be sufficient alone to secure the title. Check it.
Hair metal with horn section. The double-necked V guitar. Music video as 4-minute ad for the movie. This was, of course, back in the pre-Puck day thirty years ago when MTV actually played music videos, and as kids we would have seen this video about once an hour from dawn to dusk. Every time I’ve heard this track over the years, the chorus felt oddly familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on it until recently. I finally realized it is a dead-ringer for the title track of another hallowed 80’s treasure, St. Elmo’s Fire’s ‘Man in Motion’. As it turns out, there is good reason for this. They both shared the same composer, David Foster.
Night Ranger¹ rocking out the title track isn’t enough for you? Let’s look at some of the other contributors to the soundtrack. We’ve got Pat Benatar, Bananarama, and Taxxi on the official soundtrack. There is Katrina & the Waves. And ‘Oh Yeah’ and we’ve got Yello².
Exhibit B: The protagonist
Close your eyes for a moment. It’s the mid-80’s. Picture a generic, young white guy. Feathered hair. Bright, solid untucked polo shirt. Vuarnet Cats Eye sunglasses. Boat shoes. What’s his name? That’s right. It’s Brantley Foster. Who poses as Carlton Whitfield. It’s so 80’s, its Max Headroom drinking New Coke.
Brantley Foster, of course, is played by Michael J. Fox and in 1987 the actor is at the zenith of his extraordinary career. He is five seasons into Family Ties. The show is second only to The Cosby Show in the Nielsens and he’s won back-to-back Primetime Emmys for his performance as Alex P. Keaton. After replacing Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly in the Back to the Future in 1985, the film goes on to boffo box office and critical ravings. Fox is an A-list, bankable boy wonder from Peoria to Paris.
The Brantley/Carlton duo is as close as Fox will ever get to putting Alex P. Keaton on the big screen. Which leads us to ->
Exhibit C: The plotline
The credits of the creative team touch a plethora of the decade’s pop culture offerings. We’ve already discussed composer David Foster (St. Elmo’s Fire). Director Herb Ross gave the world Footloose in 1984 and would go on to direct Steel Magnolias in 1989. The writing team of Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. would pen the scripts for Top Gun, Legal Eagles and Turner & Hooch. The story was written by Walt Disney mentee, AJ Carothers.
Not unlike Keaton as the Wall Street Journal-reading Ohio teenager, the story follows the journey of Brantley Foster from the heartland of America, where he has recently graduated from Kansas State University, to the Big Smoke of New York City where an entry level job in the financial industry awaits. However, as soon as he arrives in the city, his new employer is acquired in a hostile takeover and his job is eliminated before it begins. Foster is forced to approach his uncle, the CEO of Pemrose Corporation, and after a heartfelt pitch is reluctantly given a job in the company mailroom. Foster shrewdly uses the mailroom communications to invent an executive position and alternate persona for himself under the name Carlton Whitfield. Hilarity ensues as Brantley/Carlton is seduced by his aunt, romances his uncle’s mistress and upends Pemrose’s defensive strategy to prevent a hostile takeover by a rival corporation.
In true 1980s fashion, the film is a lighthearted look at technical incest, adultery, sexual harassment, corporate espionage and fraud. It was rated PG-13. All of this painted with the upbeat optimism that was the public fascination and approval of ->
Exhibit D: 1980s Wall Street
The Dow Jones would elevate over 300% from August 1982 until August 1987. America loves winners and stories about winners. Wall Street and the (mostly) men who ran it were rock stars in the middle of the decade. They couldn’t lose. To quote John Cusack in Hot Tub Time Machine: “We were young. We had momentum. We were winning.”
The theatre-going public was eating up stories of the neo-Gatsby scene taking place in lower Manhattan. The film was released on April 10th, 1987 and it would remain the number one film at the box office for five consecutive weekends. From 1982 to the present, it ranks 24th in this respect, which is fairly crazy when you see the films ahead of it on the list. It went on to gross over $100 million worldwide. (About $220mill in 2018 dollars)
Yet the timing of the film was somewhat auspicious. Just days after its release, the Feds, led by none other than Rudy Giuliani, arrested 16 high-flying stock brokers on cocaine-related charges in ‘Operation Closing Bell’. On October 19, 1987, the Dow would crash over 22% in a single day and earning the moniker ‘Black Monday’. Oliver Stone would put a cultural nail in the coffin of 80s Wall Street in December of that year with the release of Wall Street. Michael Douglas would go on to win his only Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of Gordon “Greed is Good” Gekko.
One has to wonder, as Oliver Stone himself might do, how much of his film is a direct troll of The Secret of My Succe$s. The Brantley Foster played by Michael J. Fox is aptly named Bud Fox. Like Foster, Fox is the hungry, young outsider looking for the short cut to the top, they have designs on the boss’ mistress and both employ all manner of unscrupulous behavior to get want they want. Brantley Foster’s story ends in a tuxedo and high tops at Lincoln Center. Bud Fox turns State’s witness.
Exhibit E: The Fashion
Suspenders. Padded shoulders. Giant glasses. They are all here. And may they all remain in the 1980s.
Exhibit F: The Montage
In 1980’s mainstream filmmaking, the montage was king. To quote from South Park’s ‘Montage’ song from Team America: World Police
“And with every shot show a little improvement/
To show it won’t take too long/
That’s called a montage (Montage)”
Given the rapid ascent of the music video to cultural prominence in the target demographic of the era, this merging of image and music is hardly surprising. The creative team of Secret of My Success was responsible for two of the most memorable montages of the decade, those being Kevin Bacon dancing through the empty warehouse in Footloose and glistening beach volleyball beefcake montage in Top Gun. How 80’s were the montages in The Secret of My Success? They were so 80’s they were set to the likes of the aforementioned ‘Oh Yeah’ and to Katrina & The Waves ‘Walking on Sunshine’. Enjoy:
I have no doubts that The Secret of My Suce$s is the most 80s film of the decade. I guess the question for me is why the film doesn’t crack more lists when considering the pop culture of the decade. My suspicion is that it fell in the last wave of sunny, Reagan-ist populism and was soon obscured by the transition to the darker, brooding tones of the late 80s and early 90s. Perhaps no one represents the transition of the goofy, familial optimism of the early 80’s to the dark, lone wolf introspection of the 90’s better than Michael Keaton in his transition from 1983’s Mr. Mom to his 1989 role in Tim Burton’s Batman.
But that is post for another day.
¹ Night Ranger is a cautionary story about the fickle, fleeting nature of fame. I saw them live in 1993 in a modest bar/club in San Jose, CA. There was a loose audience of perhaps two or three hundred people. My college roommate was with me and had seen them once before: in the Seattle Kingdome, playing to a sold-out crowd in the tens of thousands. That concert had taken place less than ten years prior.
² This song happens to be the inspiration for this post. I was recalling for someone recently that I had managed to catch a double feature of both Ferris Buellers Day Off and The Secret of My Succe$s at the Starline Drive-In in my hometown of Alice Springs, Australia. Both films utilize this one-hit wonder for key scenes in the film.