1985, the year that brought us the epic masterpiece The Last Dragon, was also the year I first adored Demi Moore as the husky-voiced 80s bitch with the flowing locks in the movie St. Elmo’s Fire. But 6 months before Demi ignited the screen as Jules, the same character appeared in Tuff Turf. Ah. Tuff Turf. I saw this one on cable after seeing St. Elmo’s Fire in the theater, and even though I realized the chick rockin’ the 80s fashions, with hair down to her ass, was the little girl from Witch Mountain, and that her name was Kim Richards, not Demi Moore, I was still pretty sure Hollywood was just messing with us and that they were the same exact chick.
You have to love Tuff Turf. It has it all: head bands, tight jeans, neon, tank tops, Ray Bans, eye shadow and blush, cassettes, boom boxes, new wave, dance scene after dance scene, James Spader as the ‘good’ teen (which is so weird to witness), and Robert Downey Jr. at his usual quirky 80s teen best. While the general premise is West Side Story meets MTV, this is one unique 80s teen movie rip-off.
We open on the dark streets of a wickedly sleazy L.A., with a perfect opening song by Marianne Faithfull, singer of the classic alternative song “Broken English” (and God from Absolutely Fabulous). We meet the prettiest white boy gang ever. They make the guys from Breakin’ look straight. Kim Richards, borrowing the wardrobe from the 1984 streetwalker classic Angel, flirts with some old dude to distract him while her boyfriend and his gang moves in to rob him. Suddenly, there’s the rev of a bicycle chain, and James Spader comes whizzing by on his ten-speed to knock the gang down with a kick! I immediately had Grease 2 flashbacks! And seeing Kim Richards’s expression, I was convinced she was about to break into a chorus of “Cool Rider.” Awesome.
In stark contrast to the dark streets and pretty white boys of the L.A. nights, we are then catapulted to your typical suburban teen movie high school with an 80s power pop track blaring. James Spader, the new kid at school, comes from a well-off family. He immediately attracts the attention of Robert Downey Jr., drummer in a new wave band—so very Some Kind of Wonderful. This movie was like 2 years ahead of its time! There’s some tension and some flirting, and before long, they are in love. Man, were boys gay back then.
Of course, James has made enemies out of the Scorpions—I mean, Kim’s boyfriend and his gang. They taunt James and his bicycle in the high school parking lot with their revving cars.
James gets away mostly unharmed, and heads off to the new wave concert. The lead singer of Robert’s band is a total Danny Elfman knock-off. Robert drums shirtless and has hot black and red leather pants on (the drummer is always the cutest member of the band). You get to hear the band’s entire song, white kids dance just the way Eddie Murphy demonstrated in his 80s standup, and we find out the name of the band is “Tale from the Crypt”! This movie was like 4 years ahead of its time!
Next, Tale from the Crypt performs an awesome electro punk song. So glad I have the soundtrack on vinyl. The white kids do more 80s jump dancing, James dance-molests Kim, she kind of likes it. She’s wearing an awesome sweat shirt dress with no shoulders—it’s like the next incarnation of the Flashdance shirt. They dirty dance (this movie is like 2 years ahead of its time!). The gang catches James outside and throws him against a wall, giving us some of that awesome 80s pretty boy-on-pretty boy violence loaded with sexual tension. Then the next day, James finds a bloody rat hanging in his locker. Damn, is this the Class of 1984…? Well, actually, it’s the class of 1985.
What happens next is pure genius. The score of the film is absolutely drenched with synths and drum machines as James is chased by the gang’s car, but it turns out it’s just Robert screwing with him, having stolen the car from them. They lure Kim and her girlfriends into the car easily since they think it is being driven by Kim’s boyfriend. Angry at first, the girls soon get over it and go along for the ride. To see how the other half lives, they drive past all the beautiful mansions in L.A. to the cheeps and chirps of a Lene Lovich song. It’s all very Valley Girl. Where’s “I Melt With You” when you need it?
Next, they sneak into a ritzy, snooty, upscale party—where there’s a power pop band rocking out! WTF? The band is performing a new wave version of “Twist and Shout” of Ferris Beuller fame!!! This movie was like a year ahead of its time! While Kim’s friend is busy having a very lengthy conversation about penises with a bunch of snobby women, James sits Kim on a grand piano—and fricking sings a song to her!!!
Could this movie get any better? Oh yes it can! Now Kim takes James dancing. And she goes wild! What I can only assume is Jennifer Beals’s dance double in a long-assed Kim Richards wig busts a move—dancing around the bar, on the bar, doing cartwheels, whipping her wig around like crazy. This is the best spontaneous dance scene since some dude in a walker suddenly starts breaking in Electric Boogaloo.
But wait. It gets even better. We’re off to the boys’ locker room at school, with man butts way too hidden by dark shadows. What follows is a scene I think comes from the first gay porn I ever watched back in the 80s. A shirtless and sweaty gang, wearing tight jeans, headbands, and chain link belts, pins James to a bench and gives him a good towel flogging. Wow. A gay sex scene in a mainstream teen film.
The temptation of gay S&M doesn’t stop James’s heterosexuality. He’s determined to have Kim. So he searches for her apartment balcony, totally stealing the idea from Tony in West Side Story. Once he finds her window, he holds up a little walkman and blasts a song to her like something out of Say Anything. This movie was like 4 years ahead of its time!
As romantic as that all is, the next day, we learn Kim is marrying her douche gang leader boyfriend! And yet she still agrees to have dinner at James’s house with his upper class parents. It’s so very St. Elmo’s Fire. This movie was like 6 months ahead of its time.
But then tragedy strikes. Kim goes back to her scumbag boyfriend (I was hoping James would rip-off The Last American Virgin and drive away crying to James Ingram’s “Just Once”) and they attack James’s dad on the street! Kim tries to warn him to run, but it’s too late. They shoot him! This means war.
Before you know it, Kim’s boyfriend beats her then calls James and tells him to meet them at a warehouse (just like they kidnapped Vanity to bait Leroy in The Last Dragon 2 months later!). James shows up, there’s gunfire, Kim’s body double leaps on her boyfriend’s back, fake wig flying again, and James does a Tarzan swing into the heat of the action. Just when it looks like he’s losing the battle, Robert shows up after having disappeared for about an hour of the movie, with 2 Dobermans in tow! This movie totally steals from The Omen! And once again stealing from West Side Story, Kim gets the gun, holds it up to her boyfriend and yells “How many bullets are left Chino? Enough for James Spader? Enough for me, the ORIGINAL 80s bitch with the husky voice and flowing locks?”
I won’t spoil the film for you, but I will tell you, as the credits roll, it’s back to the club, the band, and the dancing. Everybody cut Footloose!