Okay, it's a bold statement, but I stand by it: 1984 was the year that Top 40 radio achieved perfection. Spurred by the twin successes of MTV and Michael Jackson's Thriller, radio playlists were fully shaken out of the doldrums they'd been in since the disco slump of 1979. Colorful and photogenic British new wave and synth pop acts had been making slow inroads into the Billboard Top 40 since Gary Numan's "Cars" back in early 1980. But the UK pop stars of the day were making overt plays for the American airwaves, and established stateside artists ranging from Prince and Bruce Springsteen to Billy Joel and Tina Turner were responding with some of their biggest-selling albums. And in the middle of it all, two newcomers named Cyndi Lauper and Madonna Ciccone were offering very different -- although equally interesting -- new takes on what it meant to be a female pop star. Here, in chronological order by the week they debuted on the chart, are a baker's dozen of 1984's biggest and best. We could have chosen at least as many more.
Tina Turner -- "Let's Stay Together" (chart debut February 18, reached #26)
In one of the first cases of a vintage R&B star being brought back by younger musicians, a thoroughly washed up Tina Turner was recruited by Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh of the electro-pop trio Heaven 17 to record vocals for a song by their side project the British Electric Foundation. That track led to a hit single with a stark but impassioned synth-driven take on the Al Green classic "Let's Stay Together." That single's U.K. chart success led Capitol Records to sign Turner to an album deal, resulting in the massive-selling Private Dancer LP. She had bigger songs later in the year, including the career-defining #1 "What's Love Got To Do With It," but this smaller hit still sounds the best.
Tracey Ullman -- "They Don't Know" (chart debut March 17, reached #8)
British actress and comedian Tracey Ullman later became a beloved TV figure (not least because she gifted us with The Simpsons), but this note-for-note cover of the late Kirsty MacColl's brilliant 1979 girl-group homage was the first we ever heard of either of these talented women. Literally: that explosive "BABY!" that slams home the final verse is MacColl's powerful voice, not Ullman's charming but thin instrument. And yes, that's Paul McCartney at the end: Ullman was co-starring in his big-budget vanity project Give My Regards To Broad Street when the video was filmed.
Billy Joel -- "The Longest Time" (chart debut April 7, reached #14)
After a string of albums that seemed like increasingly naked attempts to be taken seriously as a songwriter, Billy Joel made the best album of his career just by going back to the '50s R&B and pop singles that had been his first musical love. An Innocent Man had bigger hits, like "Tell Her About It" and "Uptown Girl," but perhaps the best was this doo-wop homage that doubled as an atypically sincere love song for his then-new sweetheart Christie Brinkley. Both his later albums and the marriage went south, but whadaya gonna do? To their credit, Joel and his touring band were unafraid to look like complete ninnies in this silly video taking place at a high school reunion.
Madonna -- "Borderline" (chart debut April 14, reached #10)
After the dancefloor-centric singles "Everybody," "Burning Up" and "Holiday," Madonna proved her pop suss with this incredibly hooky single. It's as easy to move to as any of her other early tracks, but the beat was de-emphasized by the bell-like synth riffs and addictive synth-bass pulse. Brazilians call the sense of aggreeable melancholy on display here saudade, and it gives "Borderline" an elegance that her next couple of singles, "Lucky Star" (the video of which was extremely important to my 14-year-old self for obvious reasons) and "Like A Virgin," would lack.
Cyndi Lauper -- "Time After Time" (chart debut April 21, reached #1)
The goofy "Girls Just Want To Have Fun" made it seem like Cyndi Lauper was going to follow Nena's "99 Luftballoons" into the annals of one-hit-wonders, but this heartbreaking ballad made it clear that despite her perhaps-questionable fashion sense, she was a genuine talent. She's So Unusual was jam-packed with hits ranging from "She Bop," the most overt hit about female masturbation until DiVinyls' "I Touch Myself," to a gorgeously minimal cover of Jules Shear's "All Through the Night." But "Time After Time" was the only one awesome enough that no less than Miles Freakin' Davis recorded it.
Night Ranger -- "Sister Christian" (chart debut April 21, reached #5)
All together now: MOTORIN'! The archetypal power ballad, "Sister Christian" was the song that made it okay for girls to like poodle-haired dudes in spandex and mascara. Although this means Night Ranger were therefore partially responsible for some of the worst hits of the pre-"Smells Like Teen Spirit" era, the song's use in the supremely bizarre home invasion scene in Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights almost makes up for "When I See You Smile" by Bad English.
Duran Duran -- "The Reflex" (chart debut April 28, reached #1)
The original mix of "The Reflex" that opened Duran Duran's third album, Seven and the Ragged Tiger, was kind of a botch, sluggish and overlong. For the single, the Durans enlisted Chic's Nile Rodgers (yes, the same dude who made Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" so awesome) to remix the song from top to bottom, and his tighter, punchier and more inventive take scored the band their first American #1 hit. As primitive as it seems now, this video looked positively state of the art in the spring of 1984. It was mildly controversial in the halls of Levelland Junior High, as I recall: the sequence that starts around 3:20 was rumored to suggest...um, y'know...it's a giant wave of white fluid hitting audience members in the face, you figure it out.
Bruce Springsteen -- "Dancing in the Dark" (chart debut May 26, reached #2)
Born in the USA was lavishly praised from nearly all corners critically, but living in a small west Texas town at the time, I distinctly remember a lot of Springsteen's biggest fans around me finding "Dancing in the Dark" an overt slap in the face. Powered by a nagging synth riff and a booming, Phil Collins-like four-on-the-floor snare, it sounded like a "f---y little disco song" to the "Born To Run"-loving jocks. I found his willingness to listen to recent musical trends rather encouraging, but I was mostly just into the video for the really cute girl he pulls out of the audience at the end, who a decade or so later turned out to be Courteney Cox.
Dan Hartman -- "I Can Dream About You" (chart debut June 2, reached #6)
A primo piece of Hall and Oates-style '80s blue-eyed soul from a writer-producer who'd had a minor disco-era hit called "Instant Replay," "I Can Dream About You" was somewhat notorious at the time for its video. Not the one above, which was rarely if ever shown on MTV, but the actual clip that MTV had in heavy rotation at the time, which is seen in the TV screens in this version. That clip was a scene from the now-forgotten teen-angst flick Streets of Fire, in which a doo-wop quartet (including future indie director Robert Townshend and Forrest Gump costar Mykelti Williamson) lip-syncs Hartman's vocal. To this day, there are probably people who adore this song who have no idea that it was sung by a baby-faced white guy with a really bad perm.
Prince and the Revolution -- "When Doves Cry" (chart debut June 9, reached #1)
Nearly three decades later, it can be hard to remember just how weird this song sounded when it first hit the airwaves with a burst of Hendrixian feedback and some mumbled chanting. As skeletal as it is undeniable (ever notice that it doesn't have a bass line?), "When Doves Cry" was the song that confirmed that Prince was even weirder, and even more talented, than we had thought. As a musician, anyway: Purple Rain is a strong contender for the coveted title of Worst Film With The Greatest Soundtrack.
John Waite -- "Missing You" (chart debut July 21, reached #1)
The thing about John Waite, who had been the leader of a short-lived rock band called The Babys before he went on to a solo career (and who later was the frontman of the aforementioned Bad English), is that there's this weirdly cynical vibe about him. You just can't believe a word the guy sings. Ironically, that's what makes the chorus "I ain't missing you at all" work as well as it does: a more empathetic singer wouldn't put across the paradox nearly so well.
Bananarama -- "Cruel Summer" (chart debut August 11, reached #9)
Back in the pre-internet 1980s, it sometimes took literally years for a British hit single to attract enough of an American audience to hit the U.S. charts. Bananarama's "Cruel Summer" was the "Blurred Lines" of the summer of 1983 in their native land, but unless you were the kind of person who haunted the import section of your local record shop, it was a little over a year later before it reached your ears. Even though it had been the opening track on the trio's self-titled second album, released in the spring of 1984, it hadn't been London Records' first choice for an American single off the album. That honor went to "Robert De Niro's Waiting," a bouncy little tune that underneath its happy-go-lucky surface appears to be about the post-traumatic stress of a sexual assault victim.
George Michael -- "Careless Whisper" (chart debut December 22, reached #1)
When George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley started Wham!, the duo meant for their music to be a cynical commentary on Thatcherite economic policy. Seriously: go listen to their first single, "Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)." Or better yet, don't: it's absolute rubbish. When a song as fluffy as "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" is a huge improvement over your prior output, it's clear that you started from a bad, bad place. But that first American hit's follow-up "Careless Whisper" (released as a George Michael solo single everywhere but the US, where it was somewhat confusingly credited to "Wham! featuring George Michael") was the first indication of Michael's Elton John-like talent. And you can't fault that sax solo: it just encapsulates the 1980s, doesn't it?
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Everyone at Sundance is always looking for the next Little Miss Sunshine or Beasts of the Southern Wild, that breakout hit that will make millions of dollars and maybe win an Oscar or two. This year that hit seems to be Fruitvale. What they're missing is that beyond quality buzz, there are crazy trends that run from movie to movie. I'm not talking about "sex" or "coming of age stories" or "non-linear narratives that will bore you to tears." Those are at Sundance every year. I'm talking about the things that are a little bit more specific and totally odd.
Below is a list of things that I saw in at least three movies (OK, some only have two movies, but they are so specific they need to be mentioned.) Let's hope it doesn't say too much about us as a country that porn, shootings, and snake bites are all on the list:
Porn: Sex tends to be on everyone's minds in Park City, but this year there was a specific focus on the porn industry specifically. The official selections include Lovelace, the biopic about Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace; The Look of Love about British porn magnate Paul Raymond; and Kink, a documentary about porn site Kink.com (I'm not including a link for your work computer's protection). None of these really disparage the porn industry, but rather look at it as a whole and what effect it has on us. Even Lovelace which shows its star reluctantly having sex on screen doesn't denegrate the material so much as her abusive relationship. Speaking of the effects of porn, we can't fail to mention Joseph Gordon Levitt's directorial debut Don Jon's Addiction where he stars as a guy addicted to porn. It's played for laughs, naturally.
Magical Realism: Long used in literature this is when the world in a story seems normal but is actually infused with supernatural elements. Stoker uses this to great effect, creating a lead character with super powers who lives in a place where logic doesn't really apply. It will give you nightmares. Escape from Tomorrow shows a man going crazy in Disney World until you realize that he's not the one insane, it's the malevolence of the park and its magic forces that are trying to do him in. One of the many unnecessary elements of The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman is when the ghost of his mother tells him to go to Bucharest. That starts off the whole movie so without it we wouldn't have the story. Oh, if only we could have kept this whole thing from happening.
Female Directors: There were more female directors in the U.S. Narrative competition this year than ever before and half of the directors were ladies. And a big congrats to Jill Soloway for taking home the director's prize for Afternoon Delight.
Ecstasy: Like many modern movies, there was tons of drinking and pot smoking (and in Kill Your Darlings there was speed and heroin and all sorts of other things) but ecstasy really made it into the mainstream this year. An anxious woman and her uptight brother solve many of their problems with the drug in Touchy Feely and the problems start for the title character when he goes on an E binge in The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman. Three crazy drug fiends in Crystal Fairy are on the search for an intense psychedelic. For the first time ever, there were more drugs in the movie at Sundance than at the parties.
Women Having Inappropriate Relationships: This was the year of intergenerational, completely inappropriate, sexual relationships for the ladies. The two mothers in Two Mothers are best friends who have sex with each others' sons. The teacher in A Teacher has sex with one of her students. The lifeguard in The Lifeguard has sex with an underage kid. Strangely these are all females transgressing against the norms so that the movie can look at their psychology. If a man was doing this, it would be seen as predatory and the only exploration would be when he goes on trial.
Beat Poets Behaving Badly: Much has been made about Daniel Radcliffe's gay sex scene in Kill Your Darlings but many fail to realize that this is just one of two movies about the beat poets this year at Sundance. Darlings follows Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac when they were young. Big Sur follows Kerouac and a host of other writers when they're middle aged. Two seems to be a lot, but the beats are having a resurgence. It was just two years about that James Franco (another Sundance trend) played him in Howl.
Housewives as Hookers: We saw two movies where bored housewives turn to prostitution to liven up their lives. In comedy Afternoon Delight Katheryn Hahn tries to help herself by "rescuing" a prostitute. She finally has a breakdown after going along with her to turn a trick. In the drama Concussion, Robin Weigert plays a lesbian housewife who turns to turning tricks to spice up her boring suburban life. Both of them use this transgressive act to find out more about themselves but in Concussion it seems that prostitution saves the main character where in Afternoon it ends up almost ruining her life and marriage.
Jane Lynch as a Pscyhiatrist: There were a lot of people in two movies at Sundance, but there was only one person who was in two movies playing members of the same profession. Glee Emmy winner Jane Lynch was a caustically honest shrink in Afternoon Delight and a scatter-brained earth mother psychiatric researcher in A.C.O.D.. Lynch could have just phoned it in on both of them, but she manages to make both of them distinct characters. The only trait they share is that both characters get all the best laughs.
Screwing on Kitchen Counters: We see it in both Lovelace and A.C.O.D.. Only one couple gets caught.
Juno Temple and James Franco: The official "Sundance Darlings" of the year. Temple was in three movies: Afternoon Delight, Lovelace, and Magic Magic. Franco was also in two, Lovelace and Interior.Leather Bar. and produced a third, Kink. Parker Posey will be presenting them with a trophy.
Snakebites: Perhaps the strangest trend of the year. Two movies feature characters being bitten by a snake: Mud and Toy's House, complete with slow motion shots in both of the victim being rushed into the emergency room. It was like the same scene in two vastly different movies. There were also warnings about snakes in both Prince Avalanche and Big Sur. Was this year's theme all about Eve or something?
Reluctant Smokers: Trying cigarettes as a way to express a characters road to transgression was seen in three movies, Afternoon Delight, Two Mothers, and Kill Your Darlings. This does not please our Mormon hosts in Utah.
Bad Haircuts: Everywhere you turned there was someone in follicular distress. Ellen Page had the worst, mousiest hair I've ever seen on camera in Touchy Feely. Evan Rachel Wood's red dye job and blunt cut were the worst thing in Eastern Europe since the Iron Curtain in Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman. Robin Wright cut the Penn off her name but never should have cut her hair like she did in Two Mothers. Amanda Seyfried fried her hair with a perm in Lovelace. No one knows why these awful things happened.
Shootings: It's odd that in the wake of all the school shootings lately three of the movies here (that were made far in advance) are about famous shootings. Blue Caprice takes a fictional look at what drove the Washington D.C. snipers to crime. Valentine Road takes the documentary approach to the shooting of gay teen Larry King by a school bully. Fruitvale, the festival's critic's darling, shows the last day of Oscar Grant, a San Francisco man shot in cold blood by police in San Francisco in 2009.
Chile: The South American country is having a moment. Michael Cera filmed two movies there: Magic Magic and Crystal Fairy. Oscar-nominated NO stars Gael García Bernal as a man who devised the advertising strategy that rid the country of their dictator in the '80s. We have a feeling that the jingle he composed for the ads will be covered by Lady Gaga in no time.
Dramatic Recreations: Three documentaries used creative solutions to how to create footage about the subjects of a film after they died. The Summit used both actors and the real climbers to recreate the deadliest exhibition to K2. Director Sarah Polley hired actors and make fake home videos for The Stories We Tell the heart-wrenching story of her mother's death of cancer and the effect her secrets had on her family. And Gael García Bernal (almost a trend himself) created the path of a Honduran immigrant to the United States in Who is Diyani Crystal. The effect in Summit and Stories was much more successful, by blending new footage and old movies to create something that the viewer can't tell wasn't shot when the events were unfolding.
Excellent Songs at the End of Movies: Does anyone who what the songs are that played as the credits rolled in both Touchy Feely and Stoker? I would like to download them both right now.
Unnecessary Punctuation: A.C.O.D., C.O.G., and The Way, Way Back are giving copy editors the world over agita.
Check out all of our coverage from this year's festival at Hollywood.com's Sundance 2013 hub.
Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter @BrianJMoylan
[Photo Credit: Millenium Films; Wenn; Benaroya Pictures; Ascot Elite]
Hollywood.com's Complete Sundance Coverage
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