Welcome to the ’80s: Wrong Side of the Tracks


Welcome to the ’80s is my signature article series on oneroomwithaview.com. 

Welcome to the ‘80s is a new feature looking at the handling of various themes in ‘80s teen movies, from the classics to those less well remembered. Far from being simply the fun, frivolous romps they’re often celebrated as, much-loved ‘80s films like Dirty Dancing and Say Anything also tackled far meatier issues. Let’s start with perhaps the meatiest of all; gang rivalry in The Outsiders, Stand by Me and The Lost Boys.Although few ‘80s movies have plots which actually revolve around gang rivalry, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders (1983), based on S.E. Hinton’s novel of the same name, is a powerful exception. With credits that delineate the characters as members of their respective gangs, the Greasers and the Socs, Coppola’s adaptation begins its visual signalling of the division so crucial to Hinton’s plot.

This continues in the detailed work of the hair and costume departments. Greasers including protagonist Ponyboy Curtis (C. Thomas Howell) and his brothers Darry (Patrick Swayze) and Sodapop (Rob Lowe) sport the greased hair that gives the gang their name. As well as providing big breaks for a number of up-and-coming young actors who would later be christened the ‘Brat Pack’, Coppola created a visual code for representing gang identity which would recur throughout the decade.

Taking its cue from Hinton’s detailed descriptions, and perhaps influenced by 1978’s Grease, The Outsiders represented the Greaser’s titular status through contrast with the clothes of their wealthier rivals. Ponyboy and his friends are decked out in tight t-shirts, worn denim and beat-up Converse, while the Socs go in for preppy gear like cardigans, button up shirts and beige slacks. Division between the two groups is further conveyed through the script’s references to their differences in attire, such as a scene where Two-Bit (Emilio Estevez) amuses himself by teasing the Socs for double-cuffing their trousers.

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In 1986 Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me continued the trend with Ace’s (Kiefer Sutherland) gang dressing much like the Greasers of The Outsiders. However, Ace and his cronies take the concept of a gang ‘uniform’ further by giving themselves matching tattoos, contributing to a trope in which costume, hair and makeup is utilised to signal allegiance as well as group identity. In the same film narrator Gordie (Will Weaton) treasures a baseball cap given to him by his deceased brother, signalling brotherly affection and continuing grieving.

The trope reappears in Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys (1987) as a means of indicating Michael’s (Jason Patric) ingratiation with a dangerous gang after moving to Santa Carla. Kiefer Sutherland stars again as the henchman, this time more threateningly as a leather-clad vampire, David. Soon after meeting David’s gang a curious Michael cultivates an appearance emulating theirs, buying a leather jacket and wearing a single earring. It’s a fitting foreshadowing of his more drastic transformation into a vampire, visually manifest via prosthetics and contact lenses.

His brother Sam (Corey Haim), on the other hand, dresses flamboyantly in bright patterned clothes which reflect his affiliation with young vampire hunters keen to recruit him to their cause. While in Stand by Me Eyeball makes no attempt to protect his younger brother Chris (River Phoenix) from Ace’s violence, The Lost Boys depicts a surprising and touching loyalty between Michael and Sam despite their falling in with opposing groups. It’s ultimately this that saves Michael from a blood-guzzling future.

The rivalry of both The Lost Boys and The Outsiders is complicated by female characters who, despite their seemingly token presence, play a crucial role in gang relations. Michael is first drawn to the vampires of The Lost Boys due to his attraction to Star, a young woman who seems to be under their control. In The Outsiders Diane Lane’s Cherry Valance is one of the story’s most complex characters; the girlfriend of a prominent Soc yet a sympathiser with the Greasers since meeting Ponyboy at the movies.

Cherry’s position as go-between for the two gangs is testament to the more detailed exploration of dynamics achieved by The Outsiders compared to The Lost Boys, a success at least partially thanks to Hinton’s source material. Where the vampires of The Lost Boys are a deindividuated bunch, Hinton’s narrative demands that the Greasers are glimpsed in pairs or smaller groups, allowing nuanced presentation of the relationships between, for example, Ponyboy and Johnny Cade (Ralph Macchio) to emerge. To the delight of fans of the novel this was increased in an extended cut released in 2005, which incorporated scenes deleted from the original theatrical release, notably an argument and reconciliation between the Curtis brothers.

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In The Outsiders gang rivalry is shown to intersect with social class, another theme reflected by the contrasting costumes of the Greasers and Socs. Although the territorial disputes are dictated by both recognition and denial of social distinctions the story eclipses a straightforward rivalry through Cherry, who aptly recognises “things are rough all over”, and Randy, who is perceptive to the futility of the final act rumble; no outcome can alter the Socs’ received privilege.

The saddest trope of ‘80s gang tales is the lost cause; a character whose life, or more drastically, early death, is deemed predetermined due to family background or a rough start in life. The tragic Dally (Matt Dillon) of The Outsiders embodies this trope, his criminal record making him the go-to guy to aid Ponyboy and Johnny’s flee from the law, with catastrophic results. But the subtle contrast of Chris and Teddy, members of Stand by Me’s central friendship group, is a more complicated iterance of the formula. In the opening voiceover Gordie introduces his friends; Teddy (Corey Feldman) is the crazy guy who “didn’t have much of a chance in life” as, it’s implied, “his dad was given to fits of rage”. Likewise, Gordie tells us Chris “came from a bad family and everyone just knew he’d turn out bad”. Although as the film draws to a close we learn that Teddy is an ex-con, the lost cause trope is twisted into a more hopeful note as Gordie reveals that Chris succeeded in becoming a lawyer and died innocently trying to break up a fight.

There’s one more quintessential ‘80s character who invokes the lost cause trope; Bender (Judd Nelson) from The Breakfast Club (1985). Although gangs aren’t a theme the five teens sharing a day of detention in John Hughes’ masterpiece run the gamut of social status and high school cliques, and in this monologue Bender draws attention to his troubled home life.

Notice the badge on his glove as the clip ends? It reads “Not Saved”. Could this be a further instance of costume working overtime to suggest that, like The Outsider’s Dally, Bender doesn’t escape his rotten start in life? ‘80s gang flicks state that it’s not easy being from the wrong side of the tracks, but there’s some disagreement about how easy it is to cross over. Hughes’ message, time and time again, is plain and simple: it’s just not easy being a teenager.

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