Format: Austin Film Society screening with PaulT
I think it's fair to say that Streets of Fire (1984) is one of those movies you either get behind or you do not. Like, I'm not sure there's a lot of gray area in how people react to whatever it is this movie is serving up - but despite the fact that I am well aware that Streets of Fire is not a very good movie, I am also of the opinion that Streets of Fire is an amazing movie.
Before we ever see a frame of action, we get the film's title, then the promise of "A Rock and Roll Fable" - which both means nothing and everything, and then we're informed the movie takes place "in another time, in another place". No matter how much blow and booze Walter Hill was doing*, it was just the right amount to tell him "this is a trandimensional, anachronism-embracing 80's-actioner taking place in the periphery of the same world of Bye-Bye Birdie, only here - people swear, @#$% and kill."
I can only imagine the development meetings and producer Joel Silver meeting with Hill and them getting all spun up. "@#$% Grease 2, man! We're gonna show what a rockin' world is like when you're kicking ass and taking names! It's gonna take place in, I dunno, when is Sha-Na-Na? And it's gonna be a musical, but in this fantasy, only people paid to sing are gonna sing. None of that 'leading man singing' crap! It's gonna kick so much ass. Get me Jim Steinman on the horn! We need Meatloaf!"
I get it. I really, really do. I am, as the kids say, here for your rock and roll fable.
There's probably a bit to unpack here. The younger readers may not remember the 50's nostalgia boom of the 1970's (or the 70's nostalgia boom of the 90's, but - hokey smokes - I hear the kids are having a 90's nostalgia boom, just as last decade they had an 80's nostalgia boom). But, yeah, John Travolta's stardom in both Saturday Night Fever and Grease should provide some illustration of what was happening just prior to this movie getting off the ground. The generation that had grown up with Ike in the White House was now in charge of stuff, and so we got stuff like American Graffiti and Happy Days.
The look of "greasers" and rock and roll kids was still pretty fresh in the mind of America in the mid-80's (but fading fast) when Streets of Fire hit, but a musical fantasy with American-style action? I mean - in many ways matching Jim Steinman's young-romance anthems featuring 50's iconography with Wagnerian rock-a-billy sensibilities as seen in his pairing with Meatloaf in Bat Out of Hell was - really -an ideal match, and probably an indicator how the movie was going to play when it hit mainstream movie theaters. After all - how many hardcore Jim Steinman fans can you name amongst your friends?
Set in a fictional time and place - some sort of sprawling mid-century megalopolis that looks like Chicago on hard times, we get an unknown Bill Paxton (in an amazing pompadour) as a bartender who acts like a soda jerk, coffee shop diners with manager/ waiters who have to deal with pomeaded street gangs who roll past impotent cops in period cars. No one is old, folks seem to
What's curious about Streets of Fire is how astoundingly bad the dialog sounds now, which makes me wonder what it sounded like to audiences then, because now it sounds like hammy 80's lines from any number of bad R-Rated actioners just shuffled together so clumsily, it's the sort of movie where a cop walks off and the character feeling harassed just says "asshole..!" loud enough for cop to miss and the audience to hear and find this... edgy? funny? I don't even remember what this was supposed to be back then, but it was everywhere. People call someone a "shithead" and the other person takes it seriously. And that's pretty much ALL of the dialog - people sniping at each other, even people who supposedly get along.
The movie SHOULD be adapted as a Broadway musical, but no one will ever have the guts. But, man, at it's heart, it so wants to be a musical - it's just hard to have people shooting stuff and hammer-fighting and explosions and still have your lead stop to express their inner feelings in song. But get ON IT, young Broadway composers and producers. Go get Steinman. He can't be that busy.
The cast is made up of an amazing array of name talent. Willem Defoe notably plays super-villain Raven who sets things in action when he kidnaps Ellen Aim (a 19 year old Diane Lane) right off the stage in front of approximately 1000 people - and the cops fail to go after him because... reasons. Ellen Aim (Lane) is she of Ellen Aim and the Attackers - and up and coming rock outfit managed by Billy Fish - a just breaking Rick Moranis. Diner owner Reva (Deborah Van Valkenburgh**) summons her brother to town (Michael Pare) to retrieve his former girlfriend and - in her mind - reunite the ex-lovers through what will be a series of violent acts that Reva is fully aware Tom, her brother, is very, very good at executing.
Tom meets McCoy (Amy Madigan!) and ex-soldier I recall originally written as a male but re-written for Madigan, who wants in on the retrieval scheme for money and to fight boredom, it seems. As mentioned, we get Bill Paxton, but also Elizabeth Daily, Robert Townsend, Mykelti Williamson, Ed Begley Jr. and who knows who else.
Pare's Tom Cody is the sort of action hero we don't get much of anymore but which was a sort of male movie ideal (for males to wish to emulate, not for anyone to swoon over), who could kick-ass and take names but still had feelings under that cool, rugged exterior. There's a huge part of me that likes this film just because Tom Cody is such an examplar of this notion - that he's still all mooney over the girl but gets to feel sorry for himself because he knows it'll never work out. It's an ideal adolescent male role fantasy. Sure, she wants him, but he's bad news, man! He'll just drag her down with all his bad-boy-ness! So much so that he gets to kiss her and then ghost at the end of the film - riding off into the sunset to be heroically alone (with Amy Madigan, which sounds like a blast).
I mean, the only movie I remember pulling this off in the past decade or so was Drive, to give you an idea, which was giving us a boat-ton on 80's riffing musical cues (itself supposedly a rip-off of Hill's The Driver - which I realize I've still not seen).
And, yeah, the movie sorta works by rules I would have, and did, indeed, think were cool back in 5th grade or so when I rented this movie on VHS. When it comes time to hammer-fight the bad-guy named "Raven" in front of everyone at the middle school dance, the cops just tell you to "kick his ass", because what is the law compared to some good old fashioned ass-whuppin'?
There's a whole lot more to say. I'm not sure any of it makes any sense. Amy Madigan is, was and shall remain underappreciated unless we all do something about it in our hearts and in our lives. Diane Lane might yet make something of herself.
I hear this was supposed to be part 1 of a series or trilogy, and I am wrecked knowing we'll never see those other chapters. I am not even kidding.
Streets of Fire was a vision and dream and the sort of cocaine-fueled fantasy that was always a risk, and it's too bad the movie tanked at the box office and only now do people seem too appreciate it.
*a lot. The answer - just from looking at this movie - is: a whole lot
** weirdly, Van Valkenburgh looked really familiar but I couldn't quite place her outside the movie. I came home, flipped on the TV and she walked by on my screen. Apparently she was one of the adult daughters on Too Close for Comfort.