America’s Most Self-Reflective Home Videos: ‘Brats’ and the ’80s Documentaries Boom

We are reaching the peak age of docs looking back on the '80s—when home video cameras first proliferated. The latest entry is Andrew McCarthy's Brat Pack therapy session.

The cast of St. Elmo’s Fire, directed by Joel Schumacher, 1985. Left to right: Rob Lowe, Ally Sheedy, Demi Moore, Emilio Estevez, Mare Winningham, Judd Nelson and Andrew McCarthy. Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

You know the joke about the lengths men will go to not undergo therapy? Brats—the new documentary on Hulu about the 1980s young-Hollywood Brat Pack,” directed by and starring one of its members, Andrew McCarthy—offers a ready-made, if not entirely accurate, punch line: McCarthy would rather make a documentary than see a shrink. 

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That’s way too glib, of course. Brats is hardly a work of avoidance. Instead, McCarthy seems more post-analysis than anti-, as he seeks to confront his demon of more than three decades: the very term “Brat Pack,” the blanket label slapped on the surge of young Hollywood stars that emerged in the mid-’80s, some barely (or not even) out of high school, which—just to stick with the co-stars of The Breakfast Club (1984), John Hughes’ era-defining high-school comedy-drama—also included Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, and Ally Sheedy. McCarthy would co-star with Ringwald in Pretty in Pink (1986), written by Hughes and directed by Howard Deutsch.

The sobriquet “Brat Pack” came from a 1985 New York Magazine cover story by writer David Blum, later an editor-in-chief of The Village Voice. Blum’s term was a play on the Rat Pack, the Frank Sinatra-Dean Martin-Sammy Davis, Jr. claque of showbiz party hounds in and around Vegas in the 1950s and 1960s. But that extra “B” turned it into something else: a connotation that the members of this Brat Pack were spoiled rich kids whose success had been handed to them on a platter, dramatic lightweights unserious about their craft.

Like many people who’ve been dealing with their particular issues for years, McCarthy’s intentions, and his film’s, are always right in front of you, whether he’s pontificating aloud on scenic drives to visit old co-stars or opening up with them once there. He’s doing the work and hoping for closure. Not all of his fellow Brat Packers participated: Ringwald turned the film down instantly, and the movie makes a running joke out of Nelson’s reluctance to appear. Still, you can’t help but root for McCarthy: He’s winning (as is the film), even though he tends to go on for a bit (also like the film).

You also can’t help but wonder when McCarthy is going to finally see past himself in more than flashes at a time. It’s not just for his sake, but ours. Brats is pretty amateurish, but that roughness helps give the film its distinction. If it were smoothly directed and edited, it would amount to little more than a gauzy prime-time special. 

And it’s not as if McCarthy is the only one who has trouble with the term “Brat Pack.” The first of the film’s sit-downs comes with Emilio Estevez—whom McCarthy hadn’t seen face-to-face since the premiere of St. Elmo’s Fire in 1985. In his blond-wood kitchen, Estevez comes clean that he nixed a part in the never-made Young Man with Unlimited Capital—“One of the best scripts [he] had ever seen”—because the studio insisted McCarthy co-star and Estevez wanted to escape the “Brat Pack” taint immediately. “I didn’t want anything to do with any of it,” Estevez says, a weight visibly coming loose. 

A radiant Ally Sheedy likens the New York feature’s impact on her career to being “shell-shocked.” She refers to the “weird vibe in the room if I went to meet somebody or audition for something” that followed. “It felt like: ‘Let’s just write off everybody’s lives and experiences. Their work, it’s getting all sort of written off.’”

“It was like water had been thrown on all of you,” talent agent Loree Rodkin, still seething, tells McCarthy. “You had to walk into a room more apologetically for having been part of that dynamic . . . You would have walked into a room with more swagger before that article.”

Rodkin is among the behind-the-scenes players—producers, agents, historians— McCarthy smartly includes. Another, inevitably, is Bret Easton Ellis, whose Less Than Zero became a Brat Pack showcase when it was turned into a film co-starring McCarthy and Robert Downey Jr. Ellis gets off one of the best lines in the film, when he calls The Breakfast Club “basically a therapy jam.” 

So is Brats—and it’s intended for the generational cohort that owns the Brat Pack to wallow in, complete with depressingly on-the-nose needle drops. McCarthy drives into Malibu in a red convertible to visit Estevez; cue Steve Winwood’s “Back in the High Life.” Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me” (twice!), John Parr’s freeze-dried title theme to the 1985 Brat Pack showcase St. Elmo’s Fire: It’s all your favorite hits, ad nauseam—like a modern-rock Freedom Rock

Worse, when Susannah Gora, author of the John Hughes history You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried, says that movies in the 1980s took teenagers’ lives seriously, we see a still from Footloose. It’s jarring: Footloose doesn’t qualify as “serious,” on that level or any other.

McCarthy’s documentary also shares its name with the album of the moment, Charli XCX’s BRAT. These two works don’t have much else in common: Charli xcx chose, and seems to revel in, her brat-dom; McCarthy had his foisted upon him. But McCarthy’s Brats does relate more directly to the music film of the moment: The Greatest Night in Pop, Netflix’s January-debuted documentary, directed by Bao Nguyen, on the making of USA for Africa’s mega-selling Ethiopian-famine charity record, “We Are the World.” Both docs are about the intensively competitive ’80s pop-culture marketplace, at home in Los Angeles, partying hard and working harder in tieless suits made from synthetic fibers, and both docs work to maximize the obvious rush of nostalgia they will induce in audiences of a certain age. But the ways they do so could not be more different.

Like a number of recent ’80s-focused music docs, good (Wham!) or indifferent (all four hours of Thank You, Goodnight: The Bon Jovi Story), Greatest Night lives and dies by its extensive historical footage, which is wall-to-wall riveting. It stands to reason that a by-definition world-historic Justice League team-up like “We Are the World” would have been documented extensively. But we are reaching the peak age of ’80s look-back docs for another reason: video cameras proliferated then for the first time, and lots of people have since digitized their home footage—famous people who can afford to keep archives, especially. An earlier model is Soul Boys of the Western World (the 2014 documentary directed by George Hencken), a revelatory history of the British new pop band Spandau Ballet, culled almost entirely from the band members’ personal footage—and far more riveting than any of Spandau Ballet’s actual recordings. 

You might imagine there’d be a lot of that kind of thing offered in Brats, but McCarthy doesn’t offer much in the way of his own personal footage, and others don’t, either. It’s a loss, and also a puzzle—it’s easy to imagine young filmmakers keeping stuff like this around. 

McCarthy’s film does end on a provisional high—when he visits, and seemingly makes peace with, David Blum himself, the man who coined the phrase “Brat Pack.” McCarthy’s nerves, never far from view, are particularly visible for much of this sit-down; this is as close to being up close and personal with his demon as it gets. Much of the time, as Blum calmly outlines his thinking about the piece while writing it, McCarthy listens incredulously. But when the journalist claims his New York profile should have gotten credit for helping to make the film it was promoting, St. Elmo’s Fire, into a hit, McCarthy’s tension leaves him. He lights up and laughs—because he knows that Blum is right.

A better denouement comes earlier in the film. One of the most insightful commentators is Lea Thompson, a co-star of the John Hughes-produced Some Kind of Wonderful; she would eventually marry Deutsch, its director. (They both appear in Brats, albeit interviewed separately.) Thompson seems eminently level-headed, and refers to herself, modestly, as “Brat Pack-adjacent.” 

“I wanted to hang out with you guys,” Thompson admits. “But it was an illusion, like all of Hollywood.”

‘Brats’ is streaming now on Hulu. 

America’s Most Self-Reflective Home Videos: ‘Brats’ and the ’80s Documentaries Boom