It would upset many to be reminded that in the near future, the 1980s will be at least 20 years ago, at most 30. Yes, you are that old. However, confronting readers with their advancing age is a goal for another article. Nevertheless, that decade lives on at the intersection of experience, nostalgia and culture. It seems so close, as its major film franchises, toy lines, stylistic quirks and musical eccentricities ebb and flow in their influence. But, seriously, it is far, far away, and the world we live in now has progressed much. That’s where Electric Dreams comes in.
Unavailable for home viewing for many years, this time capsule of mid-80s mainstream pop-fluff isn’t completely fresh or entirely rotten. Billed from the get-go as a ‘fairy-tale for computers’, the opening credits pass across the screen as green-on-black digital text. Electric Dreams is a romantic comedy about Miles (Lenny Von Dohlen), a hapless, clumsy architect who just can’t keep himself organised. His job in jeopardy, he takes his friend’s advice to buy into the technological revolution and gets a personal computer. After a few unfortunate occurrences, the little box of magic becomes self-aware (voiced by Bud Cort), develops artificial intelligence and calls himself Edgar. Concurrently, Miles strikes up a relationship with his peppy, musical neighbour Madeline (Virginia Madsen); all seems to be going well, as work worries are pushed aside in favour of courtship and cuddles, but Edgar wants in on the romance.
The film approaches fetishistic levels in its love of technology, playing out as a showcase of what was and could have been possible with 80s tech. An early scene at an airport cuts between passengers as they wait for their flights, gizmos in hand. Miles hooks up his computer to almost everything electric in the house – from his hi-fi and telephone to front door and toothbrush. Of course, this mirrors the possibility for technology to take over one’s life, but it is equally propelled by a gee whiz fascination with said gadgetry which, well, comes off a little quaint in retrospect.
Once Madeline comes on the scene, Electric Dreams‘ second love comes to the surface: music. She is a cellist, playing in an orchestra – you know, those things rendered obsolete by keyboards – and, while practising one day, shares an intimate jam session with Edgar’s bleeps and bloops through the air vents in the apartment building. But it is outside of the narrative that the more interesting musical moments lie. Director Steve Barron made his name by helming such ground-breaking early music videos as Billie Jean by Michael Jackson, Money For Nothing by Dire Straits and Take On Me by A-ha. This was at the early peak of MTV, after all, and the era of music videos as highly conceptual bubblegum was in full swing. Barron’s native directorial state, therefore, is full of quick edits, sweeping pans and odd angles, giving even low-key scenes a breathless pace. It feels at times disorienting, or at other times like it is approximating the mind of an ADD-laden youth pumped full of sherbet. It is interesting how this evokes the nightmare that pop culture is merely made up of disposable injections of sensory overload; Edgar flicks through channels on the television, bored and hungry for stimuli, just as the film picks up and drops ideas as it sees fit.
The direction feels a bit rootless and overbearing, but finds its grounding in the (many) musical scenes of the film. The soundtrack, predictably, is stuffed with mid-80s idols and pop gems, but it is surprising to see, from a 21st century perspective, how the film often forsakes its story in favour of often full length music videos, accompanied by montage sequences which don’t serve much purpose.
Barron works better in this context, but these scenes outstay their welcome – a fact not helped by uninspiring contributions from artists such as Boy George, Heaven 17 and Jeff Lynne, who was stuck in between his 1970s ELO creative high point and his late 80s transformation into producer and Traveling Wilbury. Lynne’s song Radio backs a baffling sequence where Edgar traumatises the neighbours with a shadowplay of a raucous party.
Later, the closing scene, where Miles and Madeline consolidate their romance, features the title song (Together in) Electric Dreams, a slice of synth-pop confection from Phil Oakey and electro pioneer Giorgio Moroder. It is all rising, major key melodies and cathartic choruses, and proved more successful than the film itself. The scene was, unsurprisingly, excerpted for the single’s music video and is better on its own. And now it is included on the DVD as its only extra – confusing as it would have been a no-brainer to include at least musical cues for the other tracks.
Electric Dreams is a strangely evocative look at the vapid decadence of its period. It is campy kitsch, in love with music and technology, and totally ignorant of any issues, consequences or wider significance. It wears its feel-good, shallow goofiness with a sort of pride; Bud Cort’s vocal performance is completely liberated and over the top in its bursts of sexually frustrated energy. The script, penned by Rusty Lemorande, is flat and surprisingly lacking in humour; Barron and cast try to make the most out of this basis, with Lenny Von Dohlen stumbling and fumbling through contrived physical gags that are almost embarrassingly bad.
As a flick, Electric Dreams is dumb fun of the highest order, but as a cultural artifact, it is intermittently fascinating in its eccentricities.