​'stranger things' and the art of 80s nostalgia

When it comes to accurately depicting the 80s on screen, there's a fine line between nostalgia and on the nose. So how does new Netflix show 'Stranger Things' capture all the magic, without setting off a deafening 80s klaxon?

by Oliver Lunn
09 August 2016, 12:55pm

I wasn't around in 1983, the year in which Stranger Things is set. I wasn't there when Echo & the Bunnymen's Porcupine came out that year. I never wore drainpipe denims with Nike Blazers. I never had a chopper bike. Heck, I didn't even grow up with a record player. So why was I completely reeled in by the 80s nostalgia at the heart of the smash hit Netflix show? That nostalgia should be alien to me. But it's not.

Though I grew up with Windows 95, compact discs, and jeans wide enough for a man double my size, I watched the young characters in Stranger Things and felt a fuzzy feeling I couldn't immediately place. Then it was obvious. It was the references to the films I grew up watching, like The Goonies and E.T., films that fired up my imagination and made me want to head into a forest on my bike, hood up, for no other reason than to be like Elliott. 

The references in Stranger Things were like loud echoes of my own childhood. Seeing the chopper bikes and the walkie-talkies made me nostalgic for my adolescence. Because, like most other millennials, even though those movies came out before I was born, they're inseparable from my childhood. They still feel timeless; they still endure, like a New Order album or a Basquiat painting from that same decade. 

Yet that fuzzy feeling doesn't accompany every 21st century movie or show that flashes back to the 80s. Sometimes filmmakers overdo the mullets, the high knee socks, the Pac-Man references. Take The Wedding Singer, in which Adam Sandler sports a perm worthy of Lionel Richie and everywhere the camera turns you see guys in blazers with rolled up sleeves. Or that scene in 13 Going on 30, where the teen version of Jennifer Garner is sporting star-shaped earrings, her friend is wearing pink leg-warmers, and another has a keyboard strapped around his neck like a guitar. So 80s, right?

Yes, dodgy hairdos and archaic technology were ubiquitous in the 80s. But overcooking those ingredients on screen does nothing but distance you from that decade, reducing it to a carousel of Things That Defined The 80s, all Culture Club and neon eye shadow. Maybe it's because, to some, the 80s is an inherently hilarious decade. All they can do is point and laugh. Look! That guy has hair like my aunt's! To them, subtlety and the 80s are as diametrically opposed as oil and water.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying you can't show anyone with a perm like Cher's, or any character clutching a Walkman. It's just hard to fully enter that world if the nostalgia is soaked in irony, reduced to an era-specific meme. It's especially hard if you're a millennial and you didn't experience that stuff firsthand. That's why Stranger Things is so great: it's free of lazy shorthand and irony. You don't feel like a wall has been erected between you and a time you never experienced IRL.

That's why Stranger Things is so great: it's free of lazy shorthand and irony. You don't feel like a wall has been erected between you and a time you never experienced IRL.

The Duffer brothers weren't the first people to nail 80s nostalgia, though. Donnie Darko did a pretty great job of it too, melding a wardrobe that featured E.T.-style hoodies with a soundtrack boasting The Cure, Joy Division, and Tears for Fears. That film never feels in-your-face 80s, like it's raining mullets and perms. Likewise Whit Stillman's The Last Days of Disco, a late 90s movie about disco and yuppies in early 80s NYC, never feels like the hair and makeup people went overboard. In fact I totally forgot it was set in the early 80s when I re-watched it recently. I didn't laugh at a character's mustache or mullet once. There's zero retrospective nose-thumbing, and that's what most filmmakers tend to get wrong.

Basically, two things are key when making an 80s-set movie or show:
1) The hair
2) The soundtrack 

If you get those two things down you're already on target. With the latter, the main thing is to avoid the big hits like the plague. Don't use Michael Jackson's Thriller because it's the most 80s thing you can think of. That would be like a deafening 80s klaxon going off mid-movie, as if a caption emerged on screen that read, 'THIS FILM IS SET IN THE 80s!!' It won't make anyone nostalgic; only sorry they pressed play.

Stranger Things hits all the right buttons because it sidesteps those pitfalls. It uses less obvious cuts from the 80s like Modern English's "I Melt With You" or Reagan Youth's "Go Nowhere." More importantly, the characters don't look absurdly 80s. Nancy looks like a girl you might see in Starbucks today; Jonathan looks like he's in a modern-day indie band (oh wait, he is). That's another reason why so many millennials engage with it: the culture — the fashion, the music — doesn't feel so alien, it's at arm's reach like in Donnie Darko. And just because it's set in the early 80s — in a time you didn't live through — doesn't mean you're immune to its nostalgic charm.

If you watched E.T. and The Goonies as a kid, chances are you feel that same profound pang of nostalgia that I do when I watch Stranger Things. You want to climb in a time machine and flick the dial back to those heady days of rotary phones and Space Invaders; the days you didn't experience IRL but solely on your parents' TV — 15 years after they happened. The 80s looked like fun to you back then and they look like fun to you now. Some people think that nostalgia — that looking back like we're doing right now — is a bad thing; that recycling the past is retrogressive. To them I say, go watch Stranger Things, relive your childhood vicariously through Mike and co. for a few hours. Then try uttering those same words again.

Already binged on every episode of Stranger Things? Don't go outside! Here's what to watch next.



Text Oliver Lunn

stranger things