Movies of My Misspent Youth: "Streets of Fire"
If you listen to the 80’s All Over podcast, you might be as amazed as the hosts were at what an embarrassment of riches June of 1984 was for films. Arguably one of the most important months in pop culture for the entire decade, it saw the release of Star Trek III: the Search for Spock, Beat Street, Ghostbusters, Gremlins, and The Karate Kid. Ghostbusters and Gremlins were released the same day. Nowadays every month sees at least two to three “event films,” but back 35 years ago, the idea of having to choose one movie over another to discuss with your classmates the following Monday was almost unheard of.
Lost in that particular shuffle was Streets of Fire, a “rock ‘n’ roll fable” directed by Walter Hill. Hill was probably best known at that point for directing The Warriors and 48 Hrs., both extraordinarily testosterone-driven action movies in which female characters serve as either simpering love interests or whores, as illustrated when Nick Nolte, in the latter movie, complains that instead of doing police work he should be at home giving his girlfriend “the high hard one.” He would seem to be a puzzling choice to direct a romantic musical set in a sort of punk rock 50’s universe, and yet this was a passion project for Hill, who wanted to make a film that featured all the aspects of movies that impressed him as a teenager, such as cool cars, leather jackets, and tough guys softened by beautiful dames. Despite Hill and co-writer Larry Gross’s best efforts, released just a week before the one-two punch of Ghostbusters and Gremlins (and a week after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), it died a quick death at the box office, failing to gain the cult status that The Warriors quickly gained until many years later.
Once it was released to cable the following year, I watched Streets of Fire at least as much as Ghostbusters (Gremlins I found so disturbing on a visceral level that I wouldn’t revisit it until I was an adult). None of it should have worked -- and some of it doesn’t -- but I was utterly enthralled. Like the first time I watched the video for David Bowie’s “Modern Love” a few years earlier, it looked and felt like what my definition of cool was. Granted, it was the kind of cool that was never reflected in real life (particularly the real life of 1985, when “cool” meant pastel polo shirts and slouchy socks), but as a Supreme Court Justice once said about pornography, I knew it when I saw it.
I’m not going to try to claim that Streets of Fire, which was met with a collective shrug by critics and made back a little more than half its budget at the box office, was ahead of its time. With the exception of 2017’s surprise hit The Greatest Showman, musicals that aren’t already based on known properties (or jukebox musicals like Moulin Rouge!) rarely land with mainstream audiences. Streets of Fire is an odd duck of a musical, in that the songs aren’t even tangentially connected to the plot, most of the characters don’t sing, and when they do, they’re lip-syncing other singers’ voices. It’s a mish-mosh of styles, taking place in a neither-past-nor-future time period in which the only music anyone listens to is either blues rock, light R&B (Dan Hartman’s “I Can Dream About You,” the only radio-friendly song on the entire soundtrack, was a bona fide hit), or the bombastic Broadway stylings of none other than Jim Steinman, Meat Loaf’s collaborator and composer of “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” Celine Dion’s most delightfully melodramatic song. The clothing the various characters wear ranges from rockabilly to lumberjack to industrial leather daddy, and in some scenes it looks like they all stepped out of different time machines onto what’s very obviously a soundstage. Compare this to, say, Grease, in which the overarching message is “The fifties, am I right?” and it’s audacious to essentially point to your own movie and say “We don’t know when the hell this takes place! It doesn’t matter!”
Speaking of things that don’t matter, I guess I should explain the plot, though in most musicals the plot is a distant third to the songs and the costumes. Rising rock star Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) returns to her hometown to perform a concert, and is kidnapped by Raven Shaddock (Willem Dafoe) and his biker gang, who have been terrorizing the town. Ellen’s ex-boyfriend, former mercenary Tom Cody (Michael Paré), is called in and offered $10,000 by Ellen’s manager/current boyfriend (Rick Moranis, yes, Rick Moranis) to rescue her. That’s it, that’s the whole story.
Fully half the weight of Streets of Fire is carried by Willem Dafoe, in only his second major film role. Stick thin and with a complexion the same shade of bluish-white as Elmer’s glue, he would seem to be an unlikely leader of a biker gang, particularly when his main henchman is played by Lee Ving, frontman of L.A. punk band Fear, who John Belushi once invited to be the musical guest on an episode of Saturday Night Live, knowing they’d stir up the audience and trash the set. With his hair magnificently combed into what can only be described as a double ducktail, Dafoe plays Raven as if he’s a space vampire, leering and sneering and eyeing every single one of his co-stars as if he’s trying to decide if he’s going to eat them or fuck them (or perhaps both).
I did mention that not everything in the movie works, and one glaring issue is Michael Paré, who plays Tom as a handsome nothing, and lets Dafoe, Lane, Moranis, Amy Madigan as Tom’s tomboy sidekick, and Bill Paxton as a bartender steal the entire movie away from him. Thankfully it’s mentioned several times that Tom and Ellen used to be a couple, because you can’t tell by their chemistry or body language. Tom is supposed to be torn between rescuing Ellen for the money or because he still has feelings for her, but he mostly just scowls at everyone. One wonders how even better Streets of Fire could have been if Tom had been played by Patrick Swayze, an early contender for the role. On the other hand, Swayze ended up co-starring in Grandview, U.S.A., a romantic comedy in which the only worthwhile thing about it is its absolutely baffling plot description on Wikipedia.
Nevertheless, the choice to cast a stiff and uncharismatic actor to play the hero is more than compensated by the fact that he gets into a sledgehammer fight with the villain at the end. In case you haven’t been entirely sold on how great this movie is, I’ll repeat that -- rather than just shooting at each other, as would normally be the case, Tom and Raven (the villain’s name is Raven!!!) fight with sledgehammers. It’s a remarkably bloodless fight until they just give up and resort to fisticuffs instead, but man, does it look cool. That’s the kind of thing on which you judge a movie like Streets of Fire. The way the neon lights reflect in the streets? Cool. Tom’s red convertible? Cool. Ellen’s shag haircut? So fucking cool. It’s a lot of bells and whistles making up for a formulaic storyline, but oh, what a feast for the eyes those bells and whistles are.
The film makes two surprising choices, first by not having our two lovebirds run off together, and second by ending on a nearly five minute long musical number. This is the second of Jim Steinman’s contributions to the soundtrack, the exhilarating fist pumper “Tonight is What it Means to Be Young.” Never mind that there’s way more people singing on the vocal track than there are on stage, either way it’s what the kids call an absolute banger of a song. If Willem Dafoe is fifty percent of what makes Streets of Fire work, then “Tonight is What it Means to Be Young” is another twenty-five percent, the supporting characters fifteen percent, Diane Lane’s costumes nine percent, and Michael Paré’s face the final one percent. I’m not going to try to convince you that it’s one of the great American musicals, up there with Cabaret and Singin’ in the Rain. But it has a quirky, scrappy spirit that I still love, more than thirty years later, and a long time after I was supposed to stop finding that kind of thing engaging.