March 29, 2020

Boomer-era movies reflect 50 years of change

Movies have long been a mirror of our culture, reflecting the attitudes, morals and fashions of the times. That’s as true for films made during the baby boomer era as any other time. But when Hollywood set its sights on this new demographic of box-office boosters, they were aiming at a moving target. Boomers came of age during volatile times in America. And those times, they were a-changing with great momentum — the placid atmosphere of the 1950s quickly gave way to the turbulence and civil unrest of the 1960s, propelling youths through a rapid cultural metamorphosis every few years. This pushed filmmakers to expand their minds, frequently reimagining genres in order to interpret the boomers’ fluctuating mood ring. Here are some pivotal films that illustrate those paradigms. 

In 1963, American International Pictures (AIP), a studio that specialized in teen-oriented films, released “Beach Party.” This cinematic shindig of adolescent escapism presented the first generation of teenage boomers as energetic, clean-cut youths who lived for the surf, sand and sun of Southern California beaches. The dominant issues in these kids’ lives were dancing, surfing and dating, and their dispositions were as sunny as an August day. In the real world, racial tensions in America were escalating, the Vietnam War was intensifying, and the Cuban embargo was put into effect, but on the beach these problems were nonexistent. It was all just good, wholesome fun.

The studio cast ex-Mouseketeer Annette Funicello and teen idol singer Frankie Avalon as the leaders of these typical American kids, who had sex on their minds but never on their beach blankets. While Frankie made several overtures to get Annette out of her one-piece bathing suit, his libido was repeatedly wiped out by the bouffant-bearing virgin who was saving that party for her wedding night. 

“Beach Party” was so successful that it spawned several sequels, including “Bikini Beach” (1964) and “Beach Blanket Bingo” (1965), along with a wave of copycat movies. These films helped create the mythology that inspired so many young people to go west in search of the California dream.

In 1969, only four years after the final Frankie and Annette beach movie, “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini,” was released, “Easy Rider” roared into theaters, reflecting the younger generation’s transition from surfboards, dancing and abstinence to motorcycles, drugs and free love. Hollywood was now producing films aimed at the emerging anti-establishment teen market, with AIP films such as “Wild in the Streets” and “Riot on Sunset Strip.” 

“Easy Rider”

But “Easy Rider” was the first counterculture film made by actual members of the counterculture. Actors Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were already staples of psychedelic-era films when they conceived the idea for a movie about two hippie bikers trying to “live free” in a country struggling through a severe cultural and generational gap. 

The low-budget film was a surprising success, striking a chord with young audiences and critics alike. For the first time, a film realistically presented the disillusioned, lost-in-space generation who rejected the mores of contemporary society and wanted to “tune in, turn on and drop out.” For the film’s theme song, Hopper chose Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild,” the anthem for this new generation of rebels with a cause. Thanks to its neorealist style, “Easy Rider” remains the definitive time capsule of hippie boomers at the end of the ’60s.

Where “Easy Rider” was an au courant snapshot of its time, “Saturday Night Fever” was slightly ahead of the culture curve when it was released in 1977. Based on a New York Magazine article written by Nik Cohn about a neoteric dance fad erupting at a Brooklyn nightclub, “Saturday Night Fever” ushered in the next phase in youth culture — the disco era. Once again, youths were dancing, but now go-go boots and jeans gave way to platform shoes and polyester suits accessorized with a sexual attitude that was much more casual than their meticulous fashion sense. 

“Saturday Night Fever”

TV actor John Travolta boogied his way to global stardom as Tony Manero, a working-class kid expressing his personal freedom by hustling the night away on the dance floor. Men’s hairstyles got shorter and sculpted, while women’s hair got bigger and sprayed. Like “Easy Rider,” the movie was an unexpected smash, setting off an explosion of dance clubs and a new style of clothes. The double-album soundtrack of disco dance music, headlined by the Bee Gees, dominated the American and foreign music charts for most of 1978, selling more than 15 million albums and eight-tracks worldwide. The image of Travolta in his white suit, finger pointed to the sky, remains the iconic symbol of a gaudy era of excess. 

Just as in real life, though, boomers in movies eventually have to grow up. One of the earliest films to explore this subject is “The Big Chill,” written and directed in 1983 by Lawrence Kasdan. In the film, Kasdan examined what became of counterculture boomers once they left college and faced adulthood. 

“The Big Chill”

“The Big Chill” centers on the reunion of a group of now 30-something college buddies, brought together by their friend’s suicide. The once-idealistic students who were going to change the world are now immersed in the problems of adulthood, dealing with marriage, parenting, success, broken dreams, ticking biological clocks and death. For the most part, their anti-establishment behavior has matured into a more conventional demeanor, transforming the hippies of the ’60s into the yuppies of the ’80s. 

But the film also dramatizes the boomers’ nostalgia for music and buoyant existence of their youth. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, the camaraderie of the old gang is revived by dancing their way through an after-dinner clean-up fueled by ’60s Motown music. The problems of adulthood melt away as the music transports them back to happier times, and for a few magic moments their grief and guilt over their friend’s death is eased.  

Today, baby boomers are deeply entrenched in their individual lives, dealing with a variety of personal issues. In recent years, films present a host of grown-up themes illustrating specific concerns of boomers. “The Company Men” (2010) demonstrated the effects of the 2008 recession that left millions of boomers without jobs, security or a sense of self-worth at a vulnerable age. In 2007, writer/director Tamara Jenkins shared her personal experiences of caring for parents suffering from dementia in her film, “The Savages.” And in “The Company You Keep” (2012), we get a glimpse into the covert existence of aging ’60s radicals, who are still on the FBI’s most wanted list, trying to survive under the radar. 

On the lighter side, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (2011) addressed the limited choices offered to retired seniors with limited income, and the 2002 comedy “The Banger Sisters,” looked at what happens to rock groupies when they’re way past the age of Aquarius. 

“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”

But leave it to Frankie and Annette to bring things full circle. In 1987, they went “Back to the Beach,” this time as Midwestern parents who return to their old sandy stomping grounds with their punk-rocker son — only to find their teenage daughter shacking up with a beach bum.