I’m sure that some of you in the audience have experienced this before, whether Sally Draper gave you flashbacks on Mad Men, or movies like The Wedding Singer, Take Me Home Tonight, and Hot Tub Time Machine revived painful memories of eighties fashions. But I think it’s finally my turn to have pop culture make me feel old: we finally have enough instances to make a trend, and 1990s period pieces are officially a thing.
The evidence started building in 2008 with the release of the underrated* romantic comedy Definitely, Maybe, which starred Ryan Reynolds as a former Democratic political operative turned ad man who lost and found the loves of his life while working first on Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, and later in New York Mayoral politics. Then came Notorious, the 2009 biopic of rapper Christopher Wallace, who released the seminal album Ready to Die in 1994, only to be murdered three years later. And now, it seems, the dam has broken. A biopic of the R&B-pop crossover group TLC is in the works. And the nineties have crossed over to television, where Fox has picked up Surviving Jack, a comedy that stars Law & Order: Special Victims Unit veteran Chris Meloni as a father raising his son in Souther California “in a time before ‘coming of age’ was something you could Google.” It’s a fascinating moment, even if it makes my bones feel creaky, because I have no idea how Hollywood is going to decide are the signature conflicts and causes of this decade.
To a certain extent, it makes a lot of sense that the early attempts at 1990s period movies have been biopics, and particularly biopics about hip-hop and R&B artists. The rise of those forms, and the conquest of popular music by forms invented, popularized, and perfected by African-American artists are two of the signature cultural shifts and conflicts of the decade, and it’s wise of Hollywood to have identified them. Movies like these are appealing, too, because audiences are already attached to and interested in their subjects. Wallace’s murder remains unsolved, and his death remains a subject of fevered speculation a decade and a half after the fact. The death of Lisa Lopes, one-third of the original lineup of TLC, in 2002, has a clearer cause—she died in a car crash—but given that she was only 30 at the time, her early demise makes fans eager to cling to the period of her life that remains available to them.