Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Movies I Love: Streets of Fire (700th Post)

by Patrick Bromley
This is the 700th post on F This Movie!, and my heart is exploding.

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.

That plot summary doesn't even do the movie justice, because it doesn't mention the supporting performances from Bill Paxton, E.G. Daily, Rick "Slider" Rossovich, Lee Ving, Ed Begley, Jr., Richard Lawson (Poltergeist) and Lynne Thigpen, plus Stoney Jackson, Robert Townsend, Black Agent Johnson from Die Hard and Bubba from Forrest Gump as The Sorels.

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.
I'm a sucker for a movie with musical numbers (especially when they are not musicals, though Streets of Fire comes pretty close), which goes a long way towards explaining my affection for the movie. But it's more than that. The movie is working with such established B-movie archetypes, but never plays like only the sum of its references -- it's more than just a pastiche. Hill has such obvious reverence for everything in the movie and the actors are so sincere and committed that Streets of Fire isn't just another Frankenstein's monster -- it has its own big, beating heart. The dialogue isn't always great -- it's the kind of hard-boiled movie in which characters mostly relate to one another by being kind of hostile -- but it's in keeping with the universe that's been established.

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.
Yes, the music plays a very big part in this, because music has the power to do that. But the moment is big and beautiful and earned because it's the culmination of the whole movie. Rock n' roll wins the day. Cody and Ellen's relationship is paid off, and she has to sing to a packed house while her heart is breaking -- watch as she has to turn her back during the bridge, closing her eyes and shutting out the crowd while STILL PUMPING HER FIST IN THE AIR. But it's The Sorels that make me cry, not just because Walter Hill times their entrance perfectly, but also because it feels like a victory for all those artists who never got their big break. The moment transcends the plot and becomes a quick commentary on the history of rock music, righting the wrongs of the past in one triumphant scene. The joy on The Sorels' faces as they perform in front of a huge crowd is utterly infectious. The movie bursts with pain and joy at the same time, and I can't help it. My heart explodes.

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.


  1. Has anyone ever checked who "moonwalked" first - Stoney Jackson or Michael Jackson?
    I love this movie too. It's right up there with Phantom of the Paradise...rises above every problem it has and is somehow more interesting for it's problems.

    1. That Michael Jackson during the motown 25 in 1983, but the dance itself exist since before the 30's...but The Sorels is clearly a tribute to the Jacksons (the Moonwalk, the dance pose etc...); mixed with music group of the 50's (The Flamingos etc...); for the record Stoney Jackson was one of the main dancer for the clip beat it of Michael Jackson !!! and Greg Phillinganes, who have written and sang the other song of the Sorels (Countdown to Love), is a long time collaborator of the Jacksons.

      Except that very great article for an amazing movie, who have inspired of one of the most incredible arcade video game by Capcom: Final Fight.

    2. I mean "it's Michael Jackson the first who have done the sidewalk/moonwalk during motown25 in 1983"but the dance itself etc.......sorry for the text error of my previous message.

  2. I haven't seen Streets of Fire, so I would like to talk about this exploding heart movies concept (I love that term, by the way).

    I think That Thing You Do! might be an EHM for me, too. As you pointed out for you with Streets of Fire, I think certain scenes (exploding heart scenes?) from movies generally exist to cause such reactions. In That Thing You Do!, the first time they hear their song on the radio makes me happier and smile more than a lot of other things in movies. It's just so full of energy, excitement, and pure joy.

    Similarly, I think Billy Crystal's heartfelt monologue to Meg Ryan at the end of When Harry Met Sally is a real heart exploding scene for me as well. It never ceases to choke me up and then cause me to become full of emotion.

    There are probably several others I'm not thinking of, but those are definitely two glaring examples for me.

    1. I start to cry (happy cry) as soon as Liv Tyler hears the song on her transistor radio. And now that I've seen the movie so many times, I start to cry (happy cry) when those first few people in the audience at the Mercyhurst Talent Show first start to dance, but that's because now I know exactly what will come of that. That's the moment where everything changes, and I love it.

    2. Right, and then the radio scene just goes up and up from there until they're all dancing together in the store. The scene is just so brilliantly filmed and performed.

      You're probably right about the talent show, too. I'll have to watch it one more time (it's been a while) to confirm that one, but the first time they hear their song definitely gets me every time.

  3. Watched Streets of Fire tonight for the first time. Good movie :-) I thought The first 15 minutes and last 10 minutes or so of it were f-in incredible. I wish Ellen Aim's band and The Sorels were real groups and did a Stop Making Sense style concert movie!! They kick major ass.

  4. I'm struggling to come up with Exploding Heart MOVIES, but have lots of Exploding Heart MOMENTS from movies that aren't necessarily that moving throughout. I would also add that my heart tends to explode at moments of great happiness or catharsis and almost never when something is just really sad.

    William Wallace crying "FREEEEDOM" with the music swelling and Murron smiling and his friends dropping their heads and all that actually BROKE my crying bone the first time I watched it - I was at someone else's house and I held back tears so hard I didn't cry again for years UNTIL, and I'm not afraid to admit this, the final episode of Lost which is so full of Exploding Heart moments it's f'ing ridiculous - SERIOUSLY. Some other notables:

    -True Romance (of course) - a couple times, but especially the ending on the beach
    -the kid letting go of his mom's necklace in Super 8
    -Schindler's breakdown at the end of Schindler's List
    -When they (spoiler) walk the bobsled across the finish line in Cool Runnings
    -The old mouse reveal in The Green Mile
    -The scene at the end of Moneyball when Jonah shows Brad a clip of the dude that tripped and didn't realize he'd hit a homerun (has since lost impact now that I know it's not real)
    -George's Punch and then the "Earth Angel" dance in Back to the Future

    I'm sure I have a lot more - it's funny though when I was trying to do a search to refresh my memory and found lists of "Movies that Make Men Cry", other than Braveheart I was totally NOT on board for most of them - they're all about someone getting killed and that just rarely hits that spot for me I guess.

    Will have to check out Streets of Fire (and That Thing You Do!) - they sound like my kinda movies.

    1. Oh, the end of Super 8. That's on the list.

      The most recent Exploding Heart movie for me was Cloud Atlas.

    2. Can't wait for Cloud Atlas - I've avoided reading much about it but I think I've set my expectations at a reasonable level from what little I've heard. Based on the preview though, it's got "Exploding Sol's Heart" written all over it for me.

    3. I love Super 8 but that fucking alien did not need that locket as much as the kid did. That alien is an asshole. That's some unnecessary letting go. IT'S HIS MOM! He doesn't have to get over it.

      That's been pent up for almost 2 years.

    4. Those are almost the exact same words I was shrieking at the screen through my tears the first time I watched it.

      But then I realized, no, he had turned his Mom into an object that he felt he could hold on to and protect - that he risked his life to protect - something he could control in a world that seemed so horribly out of his control - the locket was an unhealthy obsession and an unnecessary representation of his and his mother's love for each other - the only way to both honour the dead and heal your pain is to LIVE, and he couldn't do that as long as he was bound by that locket. Letting it go symbolically freed the boy while literally freeing the alien. Hmmm...emotionally satisfyin'!

    5. Sol O. - well thought out and interesting. That being said, DISAGREE!

    6. Wait, there's a disagree now? Canada's behind on everything!

  5. My EHM:
    In Manhunter when Frances Dollarhyde goes to pick up his date, thinks she recognizes him, then realizes she is recognizing her co-worker and then proceeds to kiss him. It is shot with surreal lighting to the strains of "Strong as I am" pounding on the soundtrack. His face changes from pure joy, to dissappointment and utter despair as he slinks further and further back into the darkness of his van. Watching his face during that scene along with all of Michael Mann's flourishes is my EHM.

  6. I havent seen Streets of Fire yet, but...

    700 POSTS, WOOHOO! Congrats on the milestone. ITS A ROUND NUMBER! (its actually a bloody big round number so sincere congrats!)

    The main exploding heart movie for me is probably Life is Beautiful. No matter how many times I watch it, when the kid finds his mum at the end I start to well up....I mean, he won a fucking tank, man....oh jeez...sniff.

  7. Just got around to watching this movie.
    It was different.

    I totally get what you mean by everything that you wrote. But for me it seemed to straddle the line between its style working just right and its style seeming just messy. I dont know. I dont want to rain on the parade of this, its just that there were many times during the movie that I had to stop and really ask myself, "is this working?". Whenever I did though it seemed the pieces would come back together shortly after and it would be working again. But sooner or later the deadpan tough schtick, or the tough guy mouthy sidekick schtick, or the tough guy second choice boyfriend schtick or the idealised beautiful toughguy girlfriend schtick, would just not fit and there seemed to be big cracks just burst out of the whole movie showing serious underlying flaws of the basic concept..., only to be put back in its place again shortly after and it feeling like a cohesive whole again.
    Does that make sense?
    In the end it was enjoyable though. My heart didnt explode, but I dont feel as though I wasted my time either.

    Oh, and why isnt this post titled: "The Dude Punched Diane Lane...IN THE FACE!"

    1. I COMPLETELY get it. My reaction is very personal -- I could never argue that it is an objectively great movie. What I'm responding to are exactly those moments that you reference -- the parts where the movie really takes off. Those carry me enough to ride the high and make my heart explode, but I would never suggest that any of what you said isn't totally valid. Thanks for watching it and giving it a fair chance!

  8. Fantastic article!

    It's rare I come across people that seem to see things the way I do and are able to appreciate the same cinematic moments.

    I hadn't really put two and two together on this until now. I responded in much the same way to the scene where The Sorels join Ellen Aim on stage. Being a struggling, semi-professional musician myself the connection should have been glaringly obvious. I think I'd semi-consciously responded to that triumph of it all. I found myself overwhelmed and I now put this down to gusto and glee as hard work and talent pay off. Something which plays out far more often in fiction than reality.

    Although a good number of classic underdog stories overtly prevoke this very same response with Streets of Fire it seems to come out of left field.

    I could write a thousand lines about this movie and still fall short of explaining how it makes me feel. As with you, I didn't grow up with this movie either. I first saw it when I was 23. I caught the second half of it on TV and instantly knew it belonged.

    1. Thanks, James! Glad to hear someone else connects to that moment the same way I do. In a movie full of great beats, that's my favorite one by far.

      And like you said, the reason it works is because you don't even totally realize it's working. Plenty of movies spend their entire lengths trying to build up to a "we've made it" moment, but with Streets of Fire it's really just background texture. I love it. Thanks for reading!

  9. When first viewing this movie, I was young and blown away. It was inspirational and I went back three days in a row to see it. On the 4th day, I was informed the movie wasn't making it, and wouldn't be shown again. I didn't understand as I felt this was the most powerful, prolific and passionate movie I had ever seen. 29 years later, I still feel that way. There are so many pulp creative moments and parts of this movie that combine the visual and aural experience that still stick in my mind. Hard to express the impact of "Streets of Fire" in a post. The movie has it all.

  10. As a person who did grow up on this film, all I can say is I got really lucky and got my DVD *just before* those jokers at Universal changed the box art in favor of a badly photoshopped Michael Pare and Diane Lane. But I disagree with the Dan Hartman song being the only tune being remembered from the soundtrack. The Fixx "Deeper and Deeper" has to count.... Best moments: The Blasters/Torchies Dancer, Dafoe's knuckle cracking, and anything that Amy Madigan said.

  11. Hola Patrick, I saw this back during SMM, never having heard of it until your review in this post... so I thought I'd put my two cents in.

    I was hoping to love this movie also, and being an '80s guy in spirit, thought there was a good chance I would. I'm also a big Steinman-via-Meat Loaf fan, and had skipped over your spoiler paragraph, so the two Steinman songs were a very pleasant surprise, and it was awesome to see Carnivàle's Amy Madigan as a young woman (not to mention Defoe - man, does age suit that wacked-out face of his!). I'm afraid, however, that my final reaction was merely a kind of lukewarm respect.

    First point: not to be too PC, but while I agree that bringing on the Sorels at the end was great, our heroes really treated them badly on the bus. Of course, they treat everyone badly, each other especially, but given the racial element, and the context that they'd hijacked their bus and were endangering their lives, it was hard not to wince as the Sorels sang that amazing song and our protagonists were all, "okay, so you guys don't suck".

    The big problem, however, is the one Siskel identifies in the Siskel and Ebert review: once Ellen is rescued about halfway through, the narrative stumbles and never recovers. The escape back to the Richmond should have been an epic, grueling odyssey, but it's too easy, and the characters aren't interesting enough to support the melodrama that runs out the clock between their return and the big showdown. And about that showdown: not only does the daytime setting hurt (budget issues?), but after the whole movie makes us think guns are darned rare in this "other place", it turns out pretty much everyone in the Richmond has a weapon, for no good reason other than to neutralize the threat of the Bombers. That's just bad writing, folks.

    So, while it's definitely a cinematic curiosity worth remembering, I'm afraid I can't call it an underrated classic a la Escape from New York, nor does it make my heart patter as Tango & Cash just recently did (and there's a movie that does land a gloriously bonkers finale). The movie's definitely got enough streets, but there just ain't enough fire.

    Going Nowhere Fastly,

    1. Glad you checked it out. I don't disagree with the points you make, and if the movie didn't work for you it didn't work for you. I think I'm more charmed by the daytime showdown and the town that's armed, because it really emphasizes the Western vibe that so much of the movie has.

      I love many individual parts enough that I love the whole, but I won't disagree with you that the movie doesn't really work on a story level. I'm a fan of how the movie FEELS and I'm happy that it exists at all, because it is such an interesting anomaly.

      You'll get no arguments from me. Escape from New York is a better movie. All it's missing is "Tonight is What It Means to Be Young."

      But thanks for giving it a chance and for taking the time to comment!

    2. For sure, hombre; I'm glad to have seen it. It's definitely fun to see a movie that operates entirely on its own bonkers rules now and then.

  12. The western vibe is important. Walter HIIl , the director once stated that the story is from the John Wayne movie The Searchers, just set to Rock'n;Roll, and he badly wanted to get a classic kiss in the rain scene.