There's a certain kind of movie. Let's call it the Exploding Heart movie. It's not violent like it sounds. It's the kind of movie that's so big, so full of emotion, so romantic -- so WHATEVER -- that it makes your heart explode inside your chest.
Everyone's Exploding Heart movies are different. Silver Linings Playbook was an Exploding Heart movie for Adam Riske. For JB, it was Hugo. Erika's heart explodes during Hoop Dreams. I have a long list of Exploding Heart movies. True Romance is on there for sure. That Thing You Do!, too. Joe Versus the Volcano. And, of course, Streets of Fire.
Walter Hill was at the top of his game in the early '80s. He was known for his lean, no-nonsense style and his tough guy dialogue. He had produced Alien. He had written and directed a string of movies that found success both critical and commercial: The Driver, The Warriors, The Long Riders, Southern Comfort. In 1981, he had his biggest success to date, writing and directing the buddy cop action comedy 48 Hrs. and turning Eddie Murphy into an overnight movie star in the process. Made on a budget of $1 million, the movie went on to gross nearly $80 million during its run. Hill could have done anything after a hit that big, so he did what so many great, bold artists do when given that kind of opportunity: he cashed in all of his credibility and made the 1984 "rock & roll fable" Streets of Fire. It's safe to say that no one saw that coming.
Rock star Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) has returned to town to perform with her band, The Attackers. During the concert, a group of ducktailed bikers called The Bombers, led by Raven Shaddock (Willem Dafoe), storm the stage and kidnap Ellen. Witnessing this from the audience is Reva (Debra Van Valkenburgh), who gets in touch with her brother Tom Cody (Michael Paré), an ex-soldier-turned-drifter, to come and rescue Ellen -- who, it turns out, is his ex-girlfriend and the love of his life. Tom and his new partner, tough-talking McCoy (Amy Madigan), are hired by Ellen's manager Billy Fish (Rick Moranis) to find The Bombers and bring Ellen back. It's harder than it sounds.
Streets of Fire is unlike any other movie in Hill's filmography, which consists entirely of movies that have never been particularly romantic. He wanted to make the kind of movie he would have loved to see when he was a teenager, and that's exactly what he created: a movie that appeals to the 17-year old in all of us. It's cool cars. Tough guys. Beautiful women. Rock n' roll. Fights. Devoted sidekicks. Pulp romance. It's a movie bursting with things that are CINEMATIC, existing in a completely fictional, stylized universe that we recognize from dozens of other movies. It's Walter Hill wearing his heart on his sleeve for the first and only time, and there's something beautiful about seeing a filmmaker known for being so gruff and tough laying himself bare this way.
One of my favorite episodes of the current Doctor Who reboot, "The Wedding of River Song," shows a world in which all of time and history is taking place at once: there are futuristic zeppelins and pterodactyls filling the sky. Prime Minister Winston Churchill is on a call with Cleopatra. Streets of Fire does something similar, only it's not made explicit by the plot. When Doctor Who combines all time at once, it's the result of a story development; when Streets of Fire does it, it's a stylistic choice. The cars and hairstyles are out of the '50s. There are biker gangs right out of a '60s AIP movie. The noirish photography comes out of the '40s, even though the editing, lighting and music are pure '80s. The movie's period and location are never specified -- it occurs "In another time, in another place." It's the kind of movie where it appears to have always JUST finished raining, so the black streets are always wet and shining and reflecting the neon lights that line the storefronts. It only actually rains once, and that's just so Cody and Ellen can share a rainy, romantic kiss. That's Streets of Fire.
While I love all of Streets of Fire, the specific moment that my heart explodes comes near the very end, after (SPOILERS) Ellen Aim has been rescued in time for the big concert. She says her goodbye's to Cody, who isn't the kind of guy who's going to hang out just to be her roadie, and she understands. He walks through the crowd and stands in the doorway (his face a perfect reflection of sadness, loss and a kind of pride) as Ellen takes the stage to sing the Jim Steinman epic "Tonight is What it Means to be Young." If you don't already know, Jim Steinman is the guy who wrote a bunch of Meat Loaf hits, and this song sounds exactly like that; even if you didn't know it was a Jim Steinman song, you would still know.
And the song is great. And my heart swells, but it does not explode.
Here's when it explodes. There's a black doo-wop group called The Sorels, whose tour bus Cody hijacks to get Ellen past a police brigade. The Sorels are not a success. Their bus is beat up. They are clearly struggling, and it reminds us of every talented black act in the '50 and '60s that never got the credit they deserved while a bunch of white guys would score Number One hits doing their music. During the big final concert, they get to open for Ellen, performing "I Can Dream About You" (the Dan Hartman song that was the only successful thing to come out of Streets of Fire in the '80s, and is likely the only part anyone will recognize). And it's fun to see them get the spotlight.
So Ellen Aim and the Attackers are onstage performing the fuck out of "Tonight is What it Means to be Young," and as the song reaches the chorus, The Sorels appear FROM THE BACK OF THE STAGE and join Ellen in the performance. And I start to cry. Every time.
Streets of Fire is one of my favorite movies. I didn't grow up with it, so that's not nostalgia talking. My only memory of it as a kid was the TV spot that showed a guy flipping around a butterfly knife, which my brother and sisters and I would reenact with one of those switchblade comes the same way every time: "Streets! (click) Of Fire." I didn't actually see the movie until I was probably 19, and it grabbed me immediately -- my heart exploded on the first viewing. It was a failure when it hit theaters in 1984, only making back about half of its $14 million budget, but has since developed a pretty big cult following.
It's easy to see why. This is a movie way ahead of its time. Hill was doing postmodernism before it was even a thing, picking and choosing a bunch of different things he loved in pop culture and mashing them into a single text. He's not deconstructing those genre tropes or commenting on them in any way. These things are in the movie because he loves them, and it comes through in every frame. This is an Exploding Heart movie made by a director who, for one brief moment, allowed us to see his heart explode, too.