Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Class of '84 Blogathon: Streets of Fire

NOTE: This article was originally posted on September of last year but I am dusting it off for Joe Valdez's excellent Blogathon celebrating cinema in 1984 over at one of my favorite blogs This Distracted Globe!

Walter Hill makes pure, unabashed genre films and Streets of Fire (1984) is one of the best examples from his career. The film was a pet project that he was able to realize after the success of 48 Hrs. (1983). He came right from making that film into Streets utilizing much of the same crew. Based on the commercial and critical success of his previous film, Universal Studios put up a significant amount of money and promoted it as a big summer event film. Streets of Fire promptly flopped both at the box office and with critics but has since developed a dedicated cult following.

The plot is an old chestnut that we’ve seen a million time before: “the Leader of the Pack steals the Queen of the Hop and Soldier Boy comes home to do something about it,” is how Hill summed it up in the film’s production notes. Local girl Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) returns home to put on a concert now that she’s a famous rock star. Hill conveys the fantastic energy and excitement of a live concert and Jim Steinman’s song, “Nowhere Fast” perfectly captures the youthful energy of rock ‘n’ roll but with his trademark operatic flourishes. Lane looks and acts every bit the iconic rock start she is supposed to be. At one point, towards the end of the song she spins around with wild abandon like she’s lost in the music and it is hard not to get caught up in the energy of her performance. However, this emotional spell is broken when Raven (Willem Dafoe) and the Bombers, his motorcycle gang, come storming in like a nightmarish version of Marlon Brando and his gang in The Wild One (1953). All hell breaks loose as the locals are terrorized by the bikers and in the ensuing chaos they kidnap Ellen while the police do little to stop them.
Reva (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) writes to her brother, Tom Cody (Michael Pare), an ex-soldier, to come home and rescue his ex-flame, Ellen. He arrives on a train with Ry Cooder’s bluesy music accompanying him as if to signify that he’s an old school protagonist – the strong silent type, a man of action as he quickly demonstrates when he efficiently dispatches a group of punks known as The Road Masters when they try to mess up Reva’s diner. It’s a drop dead cool introduction for Cody as he slaps around their leader and then makes short work of his buddies. They are no match for him and there is a fantastic energy to this sequence, scored to Cooder’s music. Hill breaks things up by occasionally freeze framing the action as a credit appears on-screen, which is very Sam Peckinpah-esque (Hill worked with Peckinpah writing the screenplay for The Getaway) It is an excellent marriage of editing and music. By the end of the opening credits, Hill has done a great job of establishing the film’s premise and introducing the hero, the damsel in distress, and the bad guy who has kidnapped her.

Tom goes to a bar and meets a fellow ex-soldier named McCoy (Amy Madigan) who shows off her toughness by punching out the bartender, played by Bill Paxton in a memorable cameo complete with a gravity-defying pompadour. Apparently, he’s an old buddy of Cody’s and gives McCoy a hard time at every opportunity. This role came early in Paxton’s career when he was a scene-stealing character actor with memorable turns in Aliens (1986) and Near Dark (1987). Clocking him gives Amy Madigan’s character a nice introduction as a tough-talking, hard-hitting soldier looking for work. Madigan originally read for one of the other parts and told Hill and producer Joel Silver that she wanted to play the role of McCoy, which, she remembers, “was written to be played by an overweight male who was a good soldier and really needed a job. It could still be strong and have a woman do it without rewriting the part.” Hill liked the idea and cast her in the role. McCoy is an atypical sidekick. She’s definitely not interested in Cody romantically and casually brushes off his equally blasé overture as if they wanted to get it out of the way and get down to the business of rescuing Ellen. Madigan gets some good zingers in during the course of the film – usually at the expense of Ellen’s surly manager, Billy Fish (Rick Moranis) who takes an instant dislike to McCoy. She is not a goofy sidekick by any means.
McCoy convinces Cody that she can help him out, much to the chagrin of Billy. Genial comedian Rick Moranis is cast wonderfully against type as the no-nonsense manager. He’s only concerned about getting Ellen back because she’s his ticket to the big time. It is strictly business between him and Cody. Billy also takes an instant dislike to McCoy and vice versa. It’s fun to watch them trade acerbic insults back and forth but like any good Hill protagonists, they put their differences aside and get the job done. Fish takes them to the Battery, an industrial hell-hole where the Bombers hang out. The rest of the film plays out Cody’s rescue mission and the fallout from it.

The cars and clothes in this film are a mix of 1940s and 1950s styles and Hill juxtaposes them with Jim Steinman’s ‘80s music and all sorts of snazzy neon decorating the stage Ellen performs on. It all works towards establishing a mythical place, tying into the opening tag that announces the film as “a rock and roll fable,” taking place in “another time, another place.” The look of Streets of Fire is something else – a wonderfully atmospheric retro noir look that Sin City (2005) tried to replicate years later with CGI but nothing beats the real thing.

After the success of 48 Hrs., Hill reunited with producers Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver and screenwriter Larry Gross. According to the director, impetus for Streets of Fire came out of a desire to make what he thought was a perfect film when he was a teenager and put in all of the things that he thought were “great then and which I still have great affection for: custom cars, kissing in the rain, neon, trains in the night, high-speed pursuit, rumbles, rock stars, motorcycles, jokes in tough situations, leather jackets and question of honor.” Planning for the film began while they were making 48 Hrs. and soon after its completion, Gross and Hill worked on the screenplay, writing ten pages a day. When they were finished, the two men submitted the script to Universal Studios in January 1983 and within the span of a weekend were given the go-ahead to make the film.

The film’s title came from a song written and recorded by Bruce Springsteen on his album Darkness on the Edge of Town. Originally, plans were made for the song to be featured on soundtrack, to be sung by Ellen Aim at the end of the film. Negotiations with the musician for the rights delayed production several times. However, when Springsteen was told that his song would be re-recorded by other vocalists, he withdrew permission for the song to be used and it was replaced by “Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young.” The studio, in an attempt to save face, claimed that they replaced Springsteen’s song because it was a downer.

At one point, McCoy says to Cody, “Are we gonna do it or we gonna talk about it?” This could be the credo of Hill’s protagonists. They would rather do the job and be done with it than have to talk about it. They are all about action, whether it’s Swan and his gang in The Warriors (1979) or Ryan O’Neal’s wheelman in The Driver (1978), or Bruce Willis’ hired gun in Last Man Standing (1996). They are super efficient, no-nonsense professionals who get the job done.
Hill described the film as a “big movie without a big name star.” He wanted to cast a young group of relative unknowns and heard about Michael Pare from the same agent who recommended Eddie Murphy to him for 48 Hrs. After creating the character of Tom Cody rewrote the script “around his personality and motivating force: ‘I take it wherever I can find it,’” the director said in an interview. Pare does a decent job portraying one of Hill’s trademark laconic protagonists – a man of few words who lets his actions define his character. Pare goes for the Clint Eastwood stoicism but doesn’t quite have his effortless intensity and toughness. He’s a little too good-looking with a sleepy look but he’s okay considering that this was only his third film and first big studio one. For Cody, Hill wanted to cast an unknown with a toughness mixed with an innocent quality and found it in Pare.
It’s really a shame about Pare. He was being groomed for the big time with Eddie and the Cruisers (1983) and Streets of Fire, but both films were critical and commercial failures, eventually becoming cult films. That didn’t help Pare’s career as he was relegated to low budget, direct-to-video hell. In Streets, Hill wisely limits Pare’s dialogue and lets his matinée idol good looks and knack for physical action do all the work. It also helps that he and Diane Lane have excellent chemistry together. You can see it in his eyes. When he’s with her, his tough guy stare softens a little and gradually the ice between them melts, culminating in a passionate kiss in the rain as they finally drop their defenses, their long-standing disagreements, and admit their true feelings for each other.
Diane Lane had already done more than ten films by the time she appeared in Streets of Fire and described her character, at the time, as, “the first glamorous role I’ve had.” She looks beautiful and inhabits her rock star character with complete conviction thanks to essaying a punk rock musician previously in Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1981). She has all the moves down cold as an iconic rock star and looks great on stage. Lane has that retro look and she would have been a big star in Hollywood films made during the ‘40s. Hill originally wrote Ellen Aim as a 28-year-old woman but Lane auditioned for the role when she was 18. He was reluctant to cast her because he felt that she was too young but he met her in New York City and she auditioned in black leather pants, a black mesh top, and high-heeled boots, feigning confidence. Based on this, Hill cast her in the role. In addition, he was so impressed with her work on the film that he wrote additional scenes for her during the shoot.
When Raven and Cody finally meet, they exchange tough guy pleasantries and set up a future showdown. Willem Dafoe looks like he just walked off the set of The Loveless (1982) and I always wondered if Hill was a fan of the cult film oddity that marked the auspicious directorial debut of Kathryn Bigelow. Raven is a cartoonish bad guy complete with some kind of fetish gear overalls and vampirish pallor. In some respects it is a one-note warm-up for his truly evil and deliciously complex baddie in To Live and Die in L.A. (1985). The final showdown between Raven and Cody, which took nine days to shoot, is appropriately introduced musically by Ry Cooder’s ominous cover of Link Wray’s classic, “Rumble.” Their confrontation is a contemporary riff on the old western showdown between two gunslingers, except that Raven and Cody slug it out with large hammers that are normally used to break rocks. Then, they settle things the old fashion way: they beat the crap out of each other. Guess who prevails?

A lot of wonderful character actors early in their careers pop in this film. Ed Begley Jr. has a peculiar cameo as a quirky bum who gives Cody a tip as to where Ellen is being held. At one point, Cody and his group cross paths with the Sorels, doo-wop group that features a young Mykel T. Williamson and Robert Townsend. At the end of the film they sing “I Can Dream About You,” which was actually done by Dan Hartman, and proved to be the most successful song from the film, becoming a Billboard Top 10 hit in 1984. However, Winston Ford actually sang the version that is used in the film with Hartman performing the version on the soundtrack album. Lee Ving, lead singer of the punk band Fear has a memorable minor role as Raven’s right-hand man. He gets to do the tough guy thing and definitely looks the part of a badass biker. Cult rockabilly band The Blasters are quite fittingly the house band at Torchies, a scuzzy biker bar where the Bombers hang out and ogle a fishnet-clad go-go dancer played by Marine Jahan, Jennifer Beals’ dance double in Flashdance (1983).

Filming began in Chicago in April 1983 and continued for 45 days at various Los Angeles locations, including two weeks at a soap factory in Wilmington, California with additional filming taking place at Universal Studios. Some scenes, like the Strip District and Battery sequences, neon tubing was painted because its light was too bright. In some cases, penlights were used to fill in where professional lighting equipment was too strong. In the Richmond District, the environment’s look is “very soft; the colors don’t call attention to themselves,” cinematographer Andrew Laszlo said in an interview. In the Battery, the light is “contrasting and harsh, with vivid colors,” he said at the time. For the Parkside District, Argyle prints and plaids were used. For part of the train sequence, it was filmed in Chicago’s Kimball-Lawrence CTA yard, and on Lower Wacker Drive. Production designer John Vallone erected a special train car on Universal’s backlot to complete the sequence.
The ten days of filming in Chicago were exteriors at night on locations that included platforms of elevated subway lines and the depth of Lower Wacker Drive. For Hill, the subways and their look was vital to the world of the film and represented one of three modes of transportation with the other two being cars and motorcycles. While shooting in the city, the production was plagued by bad weather that included rain, hail and snow and a combination of all three.
A gigantic tarp covered six city blocks of Universal’s famous New York City backlots to double for the Richmond District setting and completely covering them so that night scenes could be filmed during the day. The tarp measured 1,240 feet long by 220 feet wide over both sets. This presented unusual problems. The sound of the tarp flapping in the wind interfered with the actors’ dialogue. Also, birds nested in the tarp and provided additional noise. The heat beneath the tarp in the summer heat often went above 100 degrees.
The exterior of the Richmond Theater, where Ellen sings at the beginning of the film was shot on the backlot with the interior done in the Wiltern Theater in L.A. for two weeks. Famous music producer Jimmy Iovine was brought in to work on five of the songs for the film and the soundtrack album. For Ellen’s singing voice, he combined the voices of Laurie Sargent and Holly Sherwood. Ellen’s band the Attackers were an actual band known as Face to Face – bandmates of Sargent. In addition to Iovine, Jim Steinman wrote two songs that bookend the entire film – “Nowhere Fast.,” and “Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young.” In the action sequence, like when Tom terrorizes the Battery, Hill edits in time with Cooder’s propulsive music. The two have had a long-standing collaborative relationship over the years and this is one of their early ones but already they comfortably compliment each other. This sequence was filmed in Wilmington, California with two huge gas tanks to provide the necessary explosions.


Hill and Universal were so confident that they had a hit on their hands that Streets of Fire was to be the first of a proposed trilogy called, “The Adventures of Tom Cody,” with subsequent sequels to be called The Far City and Cody’s Return. However, the film fared badly at the box office. It opened in 1,150 theaters on June 1, 1984 and grossed a $2.4 million in its opening weekend. After ten days, it had only made $4.5 million. In relation, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock had made $24.8 million in the same time. Streets of Fire went on to make a paltry $8 million in North America, well below its $14.5 million budget.

Streets of Fire received mostly negative reviews from critics at the time. In her review for the New York Times, Janet Maslin criticized the film’s screenplay as being misogynistic and “problematically crude.” Gary Arnold, in his review for the Washington Post, wrote that “as romantic leads, Pare and Lane are pretty much a washout,” and that “most of the action climaxes are treated as such throwaways that you begin to wonder if they bored the director.” Jay Scott, in his review for the Globe and Mail newspaper wrote, “when Streets of Fire is speeding like Mercury on methedrine, the rush left in its wake cancels out questions of content. But the minute the momentum slows, it’s another story – a story about a movie with no story at all.” However, Roger Ebert praised the film’s dialogue. He wrote, “the language is strange, too: It’s tough, but not with 1984 toughness. It sounds like the way really mean guys would have talked in the late 1950s, only with a few words different – as if this world evolved a slightly different language.” Ten years after its release, critic Greil Marcus revisited the film and wrote, "Music videos have never come within centuries of what Hill (and Jeffrey Hornaday, the cinematographer) does here with every gesture." Shortly after the film’s release, Pare said in an interview, “Everyone liked it, and then all of a sudden they didn’t like it. I was already worried about whether I should do the sequel or not.”

Hill created a genre film that celebrates the clichés that make the action film work: the stoic hero, the despicable bad guy, and the beautiful damsel in distress. The world he creates is a mythical place that is a mishmash of styles from various decades. Streets of Fire is very much of its time when the fashion and style of the ‘50s made a comeback in the early ‘80s. So, the film is populated with classic cars from the era and architecture from the 1930 and ‘40s and yet Ellen’s clothes that she wears on stage and the music she plays is pure ‘80s mixed with Jim Steinman’s rock opera of the 1970s. As the song that ends the film – “Tonight Is What It Means to be Young” – illustrates, Streets of Fire is all about youthful energy and the power that rock ‘n’ roll has the ability to give hope and love in widesweeping melodramatic fashion.

Streets of Fire is a film that unapologetically wears its emotions on its sleeve. You have to appreciate a film that has the balls to let it all hang out like that. In a nice twist, the guy does not get the girl at the end of the film. Ellen is going places with her music and Cody is not the kind of guy to carry her guitar, as he puts it. But they are clearly still in love and he tells her that he’ll be there if she needs him. Ellen takes to the stage and sings an emotional song to end the film. Offstage, Cody gives her this look that is absolutely heartbreaking and clearly indicates how he feels about her and how hard it is for him to leave her again, but he doesn’t belong in her world. Cody leaves with McCoy to go looking for what we assume will be more adventures. Sadly, the commercial and critical failure of Streets of Fire killed of the possibility of sequels. Or did it?

In an intriguing twist, filmmaker Albert Pyun is currently working on an unofficial sequel to Hill’s film, entitled Road to Hell with Pare and Deborah Van Valkenburgh reprising their roles from the original film. In addition, Buffy the Vampire Slayer alum, Clare Kramer has also been cast. Pyun has said that his film is about Pare playing, “An ex-soldier and now hunted killer ... stranded when his jeep breaks down in the desert, on the road to Edge City. Edge City is where people who have crossed the line of darkness go to have their souls reborn. Cody is hunting for his lost love, the rock star Ellen Aim, believing she is the key to his redemption.” The filmmaker has also described this new one as more of a horror film. In addition, two Steinman songs were reportedly licensed for the film. This is certainly exciting news for fans of the film and if you want to check out more about it, go here.

In addition, there are a couple of fan sites dedicated to the film. This one is in Russian and here's another in English. Also, Charles Taylor wrote a really nice piece on the film for Salon.com. Check out the House of Self-Indulgence for a really wonderful appreciation of the film.


SOURCES

Chute, David. "Dead End Streets." Film Comment. August 1984.

Crawley, Tony. "Shooting on the Streets." Starburst. February 1984.

Gentry, Ric. “Streets of Fire.” Prevue. July/August 1984.

Streets of Fire Production Notes. 1984.

15 comments:

  1. your description reminds me of a mix between back to the future part 1 and blue velvet... i'll add it to the queue.

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  2. What a great write-up. This is one of those films that my buddies and I saw on video way back when. We all loved it. We were always Michael Pare fans anyway.

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  3. Matt:

    BACK TO THE FUTURE and BLUE VELVET? That's a very interesting interpretation. I wouldn't really say it is like either one of those films but I am curious to know what you think of it after you see it.

    The King Of Cool:

    Thanks for the kind words! Yeah, I really love this film even if it isn't a cool one to like among most film buffs. I can really take or leave Pare but he was on a pretty good roll early in his career. I really enjoy EDDIE & THE CRUISERS as well which I hope to write about in the future.

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  4. One of my favorite films of the 80s- great write up, too. Really you delved into more detail than I ever could, and give the film the elegy it deserves. So much style! Admittedly little substance, but it certainly earned the same level of cult appreciation that The Warriors has.

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  5. Great post on a film I have always felt was undervalued. Pare and Lane were quite a team in this. I really love the performance Pare gave in THE VIRGIN SUICIDES...I found his couple of scenes really effective and of course EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS is still awesome.

    BTW...unrelated to this post. That album by Pussy Galore you have in your IPod Section right now is a monster! What a killer LP taht is...and one of the best covers ever.

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  6. tommy salami:

    Thanks for the very kind words. And yes, it certainly is style over substance but triumphantly so. Hill is such a visual storyteller and conveys so much with so little dialogue, which in Pare's case is probably a good thing! There is just something about the retro-world that is created in this film that draws me in every time. I love it.


    Jeremy Richey:

    Yeah, Pare was wonderful in THE VIRGIN SUICIDES. He perfectly conveys a burn-out with a life full of regrets and does it with very little screen time. It just proves that with the right material and direction, he's still got the goods.

    EDDIE & THE CRUISERS is a good one. Every time VH1 Classic shows it I end up watching it all the way through, commercials and all. I really need to pick it up on DVD one of these days.

    Ah, glad you dug the Pussy Galore bit. I got into them by way of The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. I love pretty much everything he's done. And DIAL M is a great album... I would love to hear their ultra rate take on the Stones' EXILE ON MAIN STREET.

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  7. Came to your article late, but it did not disappoint. STREETS OF FIRE is one of my favorites and I am continually baffled at its critical and commercial failure. Since the reviews were so scathing, I do wonder if this had a direct impact on the film's b.o. take. I wonder if it would do better today.

    I've shown it to family and friends over the years, not all film buffs, and it's always very well-received. Diane Lane is gorgeous here and it is surprising that it took so long for her to be a star. Amy Madigan is priceless here and Moranis proves he has the ability to play a prick instead of his usual well-intentioned schlub (this was a good year for him with GHOSTBUSTERS and THE WILD LIFE). Pare is adequate in a way that Michael Beck was in Hill's WARRIORS. Interestingly, Beck and Pare would later star together in the short-lived tv series THE HOUSTON KNIGHTS.

    I had no idea about the sequel plans and am greatly disappointed that they didn't come to fruition because of the film's poor performance. I'm very interested in the new film, but I'm tempering my excitement because of the involvement of Albert Pyun. I would hate to see the first film tainted by a budget deficient "sequel."

    As for the film's glorious design, I see some similarities in 1999's MYSTERY MEN (also produced by Lawrence Gordon). Marilyn Vance designed the costumes for both films.

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  8. ned merrill:

    "...Since the reviews were so scathing, I do wonder if this had a direct impact on the film's b.o. take. I wonder if it would do better today."

    Maybe, especially seeing how well SIN CITY did and it sure owes a lot, in terms of style, to STREETS OF FIRE. But yeah, I'm sure the overwhelming negative critical reaction to Hill's film hurt it at the box office. Plus, the lack of recognizable marquee names (at the time) probably didn't help.

    "Diane Lane is gorgeous here and it is surprising that it took so long for her to be a star."

    She was trying to set herself up for the big time but the massive commercial failure of THE COTTON CLUB did not help and she laid low for a few years. I've always been a fan ever since I went and saw THE OUTSIDERS and RUMBLE FISH back in the day.

    "Moranis proves he has the ability to play a prick instead of his usual well-intentioned schlub (this was a good year for him with GHOSTBUSTERS and THE WILD LIFE)."

    Moranis is the film's secret weapon, I think. He plays such a great creep in this film. It's a shame that he's basically retired from the biz. I think he got tired of being typecast and the death of his wife hit him pretty hard.

    "I'm very interested in the new film, but I'm tempering my excitement because of the involvement of Albert Pyun. I would hate to see the first film tainted by a budget deficient "sequel.""

    Yeah, we'll see. Also, it looks like Pyun is really riffing on SIN CITY as well. I am definitely curious to see the final result.

    "As for the film's glorious design, I see some similarities in 1999's MYSTERY MEN (also produced by Lawrence Gordon). Marilyn Vance designed the costumes for both films."

    Vance is awesome. I loved the look of MYSTERY MEN. It's a neat little film and another one that underperformed. It has a lot going for it and an incredible cast to boot!

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  9. Check out the last entry of Larry Gross' 48 HRS. diaries at Movie City News for a bit about the genesis of STREETS OF FIRE as the 48 HRS. shoot comes to a close:
    http://www.moviecitynews.com/columnists/48hrdiaries/080829_48hrs_10.html

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  10. Awesome! Thanks for this. I had read the other installments but did not realize he had this new one out. Very cool.

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  11. I love this movie. I watched it so many times on video when I was growing up. It was one that my buddies and I would throw on all the time. We would even sing the songs.

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  12. Keith:

    Wow, I had no idea you were such a fan of this film. I've always been a fan and am still hoping for a special edition DVD some day... who knows?

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  13. LOVE this film.

    First saw it at the Empire Leicester Square in London. Huge screen. Big sound system.

    Blew. Me. Away.

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  14. Mark Salisbury:

    Agreed. I had much the same reaction. I remember seeing it opening night at a movie theater that was an old converted theater which only enhanced the vibe of the opening Ellen Aim number.

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  15. JD, there's nothing I can add to any of the comments above except to offer you my warmest thanks for leading off with that awesome screen shot of the glorious Diane Lane - it brought a ray of light and a warm glow it what has otherwise been a remarkably crap day at work!

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