HAIR HELMETS & POLKA DOTS: THE CORNY AUTHENTICITY OF ‘BACK TO THE BEACH’

“Not many people can cha cha cha
Not everybody can do the twist
But everybody can do the Ska
It’s the new dance you can’t resist”
~ old Jamaican proverb
*

A woman and man are walking hand in hand down the beach, the woman with fluffy puppy dog hair and big joyful eyes. They pause for a moment, ready to break the fourth wall. She smiles at the camera, gives a sort of nod, and says, “Are we the corniest couple you’ve ever seen or what?” The answer is, unequivocally, “yes.” This is the image we’re left with at the end of Back to the Beach, a film that by most critical standards should not be as exceptional as it is.

1987 was a crazy-good year for movies. We’re talking about a time in which passion projects were expeditiously greenlit, “original content” wasn’t a term we cared about, and every genre to think of was thriving. Trends were all over the place, including a handful of “summer and summer adjacent” films that kept our carefree spirits alive. Summer School, North Shore, Surf Nazis Must Die, The Lost Boys, and even Penelope Spheeris’ roundabout summer adventure, Dudes, all enjoyed 1987 release dates. But, most important to me in this nearly perfect year in cinema is this (yes, I will say it) underrated little masterpiece of a film, Lyndall Hobbs’ Back to the Beach

Looks like I’m making this somewhat of a personal essay. Sue me.

I, unfortunately, did not see Back to the Beach at the cinema; I did, however, watch it many times over the years at home with my mother. The woman with the fluffy puppy dog hair mentioned above is Annette Funicello, one of mom’s favorite stars, not only because they shared a first name, but also because my mom always so enjoyed her fun-loving demeanor. Their stories are similar, too, with Funicello in the first stages of MS during the filming of Back to the Beach and my mom with her lifelong Type 1 diabetes, both experiencing chronic and catastrophic health issues but never complaining and always keeping a positive and helpful attitude. That sort of sheer goodness is what Back to the Beach has come to symbolize to me: in its corniness it is sublime. It is not exactly escapist cinema in the traditional fantasy sense, but it is a means to submit to pure entertainment and eye candy. And thanks especially to the recent remastered Blu-ray release, viewing this film induces a sensory overload that actually brings some of us to tears. Revisiting this kind of fluff film now takes on its own relevance, too. Our current existence in film interpretation–even with older films–seems to require bloggers and professional critics alike to more or less scramble to come up with some kind of perceived “intellectual scoop” when churning out reviews, often forcing the all too easy “trauma” angle or “personal identity” route in the struggle to decipher the film’s “message.” While some of that output may be genuine, what makes the Back to the Beach experience so special is the loss of self while watching it and the letting go of pretentiousness and/or the need to obligate ourselves to much of any deeper meaning. In that way, Back to the Beach breaks the mold, so to speak; it’s a film that invites a sense of inclusion and community that everyone can enjoy without being very heavy-handed. Just like the two Annettes in my life, Back to the Beach is naturally uncomplicated, and oh so lovely. 

But that’s not to say, of course, that theme is not important, nor that it isn’t present in this picture. Beach films, as silly as they can be, have traditionally dealt with the issues of young people: teenage angst, resentment from adults, choosing a life path, experimenting in love, and puppy romance. Gidget (1959) not only tells the story of a plucky teenage girl who doesn’t fit in with the expectations of her peers, but a side plot focuses on a wannabe beach bum contending with his father’s gripes about career-building and personal responsibility. The old-fashioned beach party movies of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello evoke their own style of 1960s sentimental wanderlust: the vastness of the ocean and how surf culture embraces that idea of freedom (and…teen horniness). But in just about every beach movie, there’s a “snap back to reality” moment, and conceptually, Back to the Beach is the follow-up to that moment, 20 or so years later. It’s kind of metafiction, and kind of not.

When we rejoin the lives of Annette and her husband, played again by Frankie Avalon (thanks to some legal hullabaloo he cannot be called “Frankie” in the film; as a workaround, he’s only referred to as “Dad” or by his surfing moniker, “Kahuna”), they are both in the throes of mid-life crisis. “Frankie,” having his obsession moved from breaking waves to breaking sales records, owns a successful used car dealership, and Annette has gone from happy-go-lucky teenybopper to Happy Homemaker from Hell. We’re introduced to the couple’s teenage son, Bobby, who has chosen suburban rebellion in reaction to his parents’ nuclear family perfection, as our punk narrator. Bobby trashes his dad’s flashy suit-and-hair helmet couture and his mother’s penchant for Skippy peanut butter and Campbell’s soup, quick to note how stuck in their ways they are, and details how the kitschiness of his homelife is slowly driving him mad. The satire is thick and playful without being cynical or mean, even with Bobby’s bad attitude–a note from the filmmakers that this is still a fun movie, even if it is ridiculing almost everyone involved. 

Typical for a teenager, Bobby is embarrassed at his parents, and can we blame him? His mom is chill for the most part, but drips of old-fashioned style and hokey sitcom charisma. His dad is the worse offender: a man who compulsively baby talks when anyone mentions grown-up daughter Sandi, tells the same “accident story” every day after dinner no matter the location, and uses his surfing glory days as a gimmick to sell used cars in Ohio rather than actually keep up with his love for the sport. The truth of the times is that “Frankie” and Annette have grown into extremely cornball adults after being relatively hip teenagers, and Bobby never hesitates to speak that truth. Living with the frustrations that go along with how weird they are, and how many foibles they have, he starts on a quest for his own version of normalcy. 

So what route does Bobby take? The punk route; pretty much the easiest one. Of all the types of rebellion, “punk” is the most low-hanging, and requires the least effort to achieve. And this is “movie punk,” so that means it’s even easier: just put on a leather jacket and relent to complaining about things. When Bobby reaches California, a group of beach punks catches his eye, and he, believing he has found a version of “his people,” immediately joins them. The beach punks represent a sort of tribalism, a separate culture from the beach bunnies and hot doggers, and are treated as villains in most of the picture. Interestingly enough though, the punks don’t do much to cause a lot of havoc on the beach. In fact, the most disruptive thing they do in the entire film is crash Sandi and Annette’s pajama party, but even then it’s just them forming a conga line and dancing along with the frilly girls. They cutely get kicked out because, honestly, how dare they, hmph!, but everyone is still laughing and bouncing around and having a great time. It’s such a delightful scene putting the two groups together in a moment of unexpected glee that it makes us think maybe all the movie’s other conflicts with the punks result from just a big misunderstanding. And it shows that the punks can be just as cornball as everyone else.

Being a lazy no-good beach punk is easy, but to put in the work to achieve a real-life goal, that’s an even more punk thing. Authentic punk is a reversal of expectation. When they rebooted Tank Girl with artist Ashley Wood, the most punk thing they could come up with was making her a boring corpo. Going back to the old beach movies, the Kahuna was a punk relative to his parents. The brand of resentment harbored by the parents of the Early Boomers back in the 1950s and ‘60s generated from their survival of both a Depression and World War, and the many sacrifices made for the well-being of their families, only to see their children skip school and go surfing all day. So when Dad wants you to take responsibility as he did in his youth but all you want to do is be free to surf when you please and hang around and party, there’s going to be a clash. It’s a different kind of rebellion that isn’t a costumed punk persona, but at the core, it’s the same sentiment of wanting someone off your back and having control of your own life. Punk is a broad term in this instance, and goes to symbolize a desire to buck against the system, whatever that system may be–some experiences with this are just louder than others. In Back to the Beach, Sandi’s fiance Michael makes premium surfboards but gives them away instead of selling them. Giving them away is his own form of quiet rebellion. Unfortunately, oftentimes the opposing perspectives on life are so stubborn that they lose sight of any sort of compromise that will help either party achieve those real-life goals, never realizing a way to take on responsibility healthily without losing intrinsic values.

“Frankie” bucked loudly enough to say “I’m going to live my life the way I want” until fate intervened and a tidal wave made him reconsider (the aforementioned “accident story.”). But he swung hard in the other direction, succumbing to the pressure of personal responsibility and opening his dealership. Everyone who knows him can clearly see the dealership life isn’t exactly fulfilling. Selling cars brings out his neurosis, and has led him away from the pursuit of doing something he loves to make him happy and enriched. Effectively, the Kahuna has lost his mojo. Bobby sees this and rebels, desperate for some kind of connection, but knows he can’t find it with his father. He does think he’s found that connection with Zed, leader of the beach punks. Bobby doesn’t respect his dad because he’s never witnessed him being anything other than this has-been dork, but with Zed, there’s an edgy brand of misdirected confidence staring him in the face. And so Bobby mistakes that punk demeanor for a hierarchy of masculinity and therefore tries to please Zed and win his approval. The two sides pulling Bobby now are his former surfer rebel-turned-square father and the ultra-cool and sarcastic Zed. Faced with the punks on the beach, “Frankie” uses his own overconfidence to deliver bad jokes and insults about their surfboards as fighting words, with the allusion that their manhood is represented by the size of their boards. Bobby ceremoniously cries out that he has “a wildly different opinion.” If punk authenticity really is a reversal of expectation, this whole exchange goes against that by again exemplifying taking the easy route, throwing nuance to the wind, and acting out instead of facing insecurity.

“Frankie” learns a bit about loosening up during the course of the movie, though, and that’s partially due to a conversation with Sandi’s fiance. On a rainy beach afternoon, “Frankie” encourages Michael to sell the surfboards he produces, acknowledging that he’s incredibly talented at making them. Michael point-blankly tells him that he doesn’t want to end up as obsessed with business as he is, neglecting his loved ones in favor of a bottom line. Pausing to consider that scenario for a moment, “Frankie,” almost a little envious-sounding, responds with, “I just think, if you could make money doing something you love, I mean, people just dream about that kind of thing.” The conversation is the beginning of a wake-up call for the Kahuna, and it leaves them both thinking about ways they can compromise to get the most fulfillment in each of their lives. Later at the big beach bonfire, we see Michael happy to report to Sandi that he’s sold a good handful of surfboards that day, signaling to her that he’s ready to take their relationship seriously. Annette recognizes this too and quickly offers that she’s ready to move out of Sandi’s apartment, citing that she could use a little bit of privacy herself.

Annette is always so clued in to what others are experiencing that we’re led to believe her hokey mom schtick is her kind of just playing pretend. Annette genuinely is experiencing a rut, going through the motions of trad-housewife duties, but she’s the first one to snap out of it when the idea of a vacation is barely introduced. Then we see how quickly Annette’s gears can turn, how she’s grown to be a master manipulator to help set things right when they need to be. “Manipulator” in this sense is far less sinister than the term has come to mean, it’s just that she knows how to set up the dominoes so that everyone eventually ends up happy again (this was also a character trait of my mother). When the Kahuna starts hanging around with old flame Connie, even Annette’s jealousy is mostly wholesome and good-natured as she grabs the attention of the buff local beach sleaze and teases him into being her husband’s rival. Later on the beach, as the center of everyone’s attention this time, she even gets to perform a song she in real life popularized 20 years prior that more or less brought the original Jamaican ska sound to the American mainstream–but this time breaking her own “America’s Sweetheart” mold by doing a more punked out version of it alongside a cool contemporary band, thanks to a random appearance by Fishbone. It’s typical beach movie musical fluff, and the charm works every time.

Both “Frankie” and Annette are set up to be the biggest squares ever, but the most mystifying thing about that is they both exude a confidence that isn’t always associated with corny people. When we think of squares, we may think of insecure nerds, but these two former teen stars are so certain about themselves and the choices they’ve made there’s no reason to question any idea of what cool means to them. Annette never wanted anything more than the love of her man, a few songs to sing, and a well-kept life. That’s mostly what she got, and she really couldn’t be much happier. The Kahuna had his mojo uncorked when he entered the surfing contest against Zed, this time fully conquering the unexpected-yet-fitting return of the Humunga Cowabunga From Down Unda, and winning the respect of his son. Bobby finally witnesses how cool his dad can be, and it makes such an impression that he decides to ditch the punk aesthetic and go full hair helmet. We see that it’s a happy ending for everyone else, too. The final scene takes us to local joint Daddy-O’s where there’s already a party going, Dick Dale and “at least 2 Del-tones” are playing, and our heroes are all joining them onstage. Zed’s even there, still leather-clad, but a little more pop-tuned, singing backup. Michael proposes to Sandi during the song, and she accepts. The only person who isn’t having a great time is the bartender, with the familiar face of Bob Denver, who is torn away from a date with local hottie Bridgette by his old boss insisting they go off to lead another “three-hour tour.” 

What we can take from Back to the Beach is it’s more than okay to just be ourselves. This film is honestly so wacky that it doesn’t fit into any mold, so why should we? It says “yes you can rock a hair helmet,” “yes you can use zip ties to make the sleeves of your leather jacket look spiked,” “yes you can wear a bikini consisting of a wet suit on top and a tulle/lace skirt on the bottom.” You can even distort reality by appearing out of nowhere, singing a version of “Surfin’ Bird” in front of everyone, and right afterward float away into space hanging ten on a flying surfboard, a la Pee Wee Herman. Back to the Beach presents such a positive moral about being true to ourselves and offers it to us in such a fun way that we don’t have to strain to find what it’s trying to convey. We’re so used to a style of film interpretation that looks for “the other” in everything, but here that’s not even necessary. Because the message is that, in the end–cool kid, punk, or square–we’re all inherently made of the same stuff, it’s just rearranged differently. There is no mold. It’s what we choose to do with that stuff that’s important, though, how we choose to carry ourselves and treat other people. And sometimes, that means compromising and reversing our expectations of each other. Like that pajama party, we’re all here to have fun. Annette Funicello knew that, and so did my mom. Back to the Beach was Annette’s final film, which makes this lesson all the more significant. And with my mother passing not too long ago as well, I take every opportunity to revisit this picture not only to honor Ms. Funicello but to keep the memory of my own personal Annette alive. In all seriousness–it’s a beautiful feeling letting Back to the Beach wash over you, simply indulging in having a good time.

*lyrics to “Jamaica Ska” written by Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, 1964