Clueless is hardly the only ’90s hit to endure the remake treatment in this era of nostalgia’s supreme authority over the pop culture landscape. But, even among a ubiquity of its sort, the recently revealed Clueless musical in production feels especially out of place. In fact, it could very well be the best example of why there is just something that gets lost every time we bring our old favorites back to screen, print, or, in this case, stage. While a Clueless jukebox musical — one penned by original director and screenwriter Amy Heckerling, no less — feels as fun and vibrant as any reboot, we must also face the unfortunate fact that a key component of the hit film will eventually be lost in the translation: Clueless was a story about “now,” not “back then.”
By 1995, 43-year-old Heckerling had directed two Look Who’s Talking movies, European Vacation, the genre spoof Johnny Dangerously, and — most notably — the high school slacker comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High, written by a then-unknown we now recognize with wavering esteem as Cameron Crowe. Spiting the infancy of her most recent pictures’ central cast, Heckerling had showcased throughout her work a definitive understanding of the mode — a function she brought to life to a new degree in Clueless.
The talking baby flicks had just enough of an edge to keep them from breaching what seemed like an inevitable cloyingness. Her Vacation venture made good use of Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo’s tenacity for fresh comedy. Johnny Dangerously, though emphatically goofy, was nonetheless a sharp and decided satire of a genre at large. (Remember, Goodfellas came out six years after Heckerling’s parody.) And Fast Times, for all its formal liberties, is remembered as one of the finest and truest cinematic testaments to high school life, era of attendance notwithstanding.
Though the timeless spirit of teenhood holds great stake in the foundation of Clueless, the top priority (and main character) of the 1995 feature is, undoubtedly, 1995. Though herself estranged from the high school age for more than two decades, Heckerling appeared to be in no substantial way estranged from the spirit of the time she aimed to capture in Clueless. In fact, this reasonable displacement from her own teenage era, and that of the contemporaneous high school student, likely only aided Heckerling in taking such a clear look at the natural habitat of her observed species.
The testament of her clarity is the popularity of her product: Clueless was a dominating hit among the post-adolescents — ditto the parents and younger siblings thereof who endured countless repeat viewings via the living room VCR — of the time. Yes, the film was not shy about taking jabs at its subjects, but said jabs were affectionate. Better yet, they were well-informed. Even though Cher Horowitz represented an economic demographic to which few could hope to belong, any of her cohorts at home could relate to her didactic reliance on the whims of the time: hyper-literacy, unfounded claims to authority, and a judgment of anything operating outside the order.
In short, Clueless nailed 1995. And the teenagers of 1995 were delighted, even when being mocked, to see a movie for and about them.
While a return to the subject matter on the stage can inspire all sorts of gleeful reflections on the days of yore, it, by necessity, can’t really offer anything but. A musical about a time 20 years dead will rely heavily on our wistful remembrance of the age. More so, perhaps, on our remembrance of the pop culture of the age — namely, the specific piece of pop culture that inspired the musical in the first place.
And while it’s funny to laud Clueless as a piece of work relying only on itself (after all, it was based on Jane Austen’s Emma), it’s this factor that will distinguish it — and has distinguished each of its pop culture precedents from the remakes they’ve spawned — from Clueless: The Jukebox Musical. Clueless was, more than most, a story about its own time. A Clueless remake will simply be a story about another time.
However saddled, as many of us are, with an acute case of ’90s nostalgia, this might be what makes now exactly the right time to bring it back.
Images: Paramount Pictures