On my About page, and again in my first post, I mention that one of the things I intend to write about on this site is movies. It would be strange if I didn’t: I’ve been a movie buff ever since I was a little kid hanging out in the local video store, wishing I could take the entire stock home. And while there are certainly movies I’m going to pick apart or hold up as examples of what not to do, most of them are going to be movies I love, or that inspire me in some way.
That’s why the very first movie review on Dreams of the Shining Horizon is going to be about Streets of Fire. It fits into both categories, and I wanted to get the whole endeavor off to a positive start.
Before I get started, I’d like to give you two warnings: 1) This review is very much about my personal reactions. If you’d like a more complete and erudite review, check out this review at Teleport City. And 2) Spoilers ahoy.
I’m going to start this review by being completely honest: this is not a great movie. In some ways, it’s not even a good movie. It was made by some of the same creative team that made The Warriors, and it shares some of that movie’s problems – specifically, the dialogue. Every line is a cliched heroic one-liner, not true dialogue at all. In some places that actually works; in some places it causes me pain. So why do I love it so much? Actually, since this film is a bona fide cult classic, why do so many people love it so much?
Well, the soundtrack, for one. I mean listen to this:
That right there? That is some weapons-grade Jim Steinman. I consider it to be his magnum opus. It takes everything he’s ever said in his entire songwriting career and sums it up in one song.
(Don’t know who Jim Steinman is? Don’t worry. I’ll get to him in another post.)
And while that is my favorite song from the movie, it is far from the most famous (I’m not sure if it counts as “famous” at all, really). But I suspect you have heard of some of the others, most especially Maria McKee’s “Never Be You” and Dan Hartman’s “I Can Dream About You”. Streets of Fire is a member of a strange but exclusive club of movies whose soundtracks were far more successful and long-lasting than the movie itself. Other members include Less Than Zero, Eddie and the Cruisers (oh, especially Eddie and the Cruisers) and even, one could argue, Footloose. Oh, the movie is a classic in its own right, but there are people in the world who don’t even know that the song came from a movie.
But there’s more to it than that. If you love a soundtrack but parts of the movie cause you pain, you buy the soundtrack and forget about the movie. I’ve done it before. And at first, that’s what I did with Streets of Fire. At first. But in the end, I couldn’t stay away.
What was it?
The plot is simple but solid, and while the characters are by no means well-developed, they are satisfying and well-loved archetypes. Someone (I wish I could remember who) once described it as “Soldier Boy comes home to rescue the Queen of the Bop from the Leader of the Pack”, and that actually describes it pretty well:
The movie opens on a big night in the Richmond, a run-down working class neighborhood in a nameless city: Ellen Aim (Diane Lane), Local Girl Made Good, has come home for a benefit concert in the Old Neighborhood. She gets off to a rockin’ start, but the concert gets no further than the opening song. Ellen has attracted the attention of Raven Shaddock (Willem Defoe), leader of a powerful biker gang called The Bombers, and they raid the concert in force to kidnap her. Ellen’s bandmates are quickly dispatched, Security does little better, and Ellen is carried off into the night, The Bombers sowing chaos and terror as they go.
Reva Cody, pillar of the community and owner of the local diner, sends a telegram (!) to her brother Tom (Michael Pare), requesting his aid. Tom arrives soon after, just in time to show us all how badass he is by thrashing another “gang” who foolishly tried to make trouble in Reva’s diner, and turned out to be not nearly as tough as they thought.
Tom is unhappy with Reva for asking him to come back and rescue Ellen – who happens to be his ex – but finally agrees to do it. As long as he gets paid. Tom is a soldier of fortune, and he can deal with the situation if he keeps it professional. Along the way, Tom picks up a sidekick in the form of McCoy (Amy Madigan), an ex-soldier herself (or so she claims…at every opportunity).
Ellen’s manager and current boyfriend, Billy Fish (Rick Moranis), is willing to pay Cody what he asks. He’s less eager to join the group on their mission, but as the only member of the group with any knowledge of “the Battery”, the Bombers’ home neighborhood, his assistance is not optional.
I’m kind of intrigued by the character of Billy Fish here. In most movies of this sort, Billy would be a cowardly, whiny burden. At best. At worst, he would be an outright villain, bullying the hero, failing to appreciate (or perhaps even abusing) Ellen, or even scheming with the Bombers. Now, Billy is certainly a bit whiny (to go along with a generalized case of the Motormouth), but he’s no coward. In the opening scene, he charges out on stage during the Bombers’ raid, one of the few characters with the presence of mind to even try to fight back. Near the climax, he confronts Raven personally. The fact that he promptly gets his ass kicked in both cases does not detract from his courage in any way. He’s much more effective during the rescue mission, when he acts as navigator and back-up driver.
Two awesome rockabilly tunes, one androgynous stripper and a whole bunch of exploding motorcycles later, the three of them rescue Ellen and escape into the night, sowing chaos and terror as they go. Well, Tom does most of the sowing, to cover the escape of the other three. By the time he’s finished sowing, half of the Battery is burning down. Just as he’s about to drive off on a stolen motorcycle, he’s confronted by Raven, who seems more amused by all of this than anything. They trade tough guy-isms – Raven mostly threats, Tom’s amounting to “Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough” (Raven does, of course, or the rest of the movie would be kind of anticlimactic) – before Tom drives off.
One carjacked doo-wop band after that, Our Heroes have returned to the Richmond. Ellen and Tom’s reunion has not gone well: she resents the fact that he’s treating her rescue as a mercenary job, he believes she’s putting on airs. Neither behaves particularly well, but it’s Tom who manages to piss off everyone in the Richmond.
Of course, it’s all just a lead-up to their (surprisingly sudden) Passionate Reconciliation, after which Tom gets his head together, reconciles with the people he’s wronged, and meets Raven’s challenge. Remember those bits in the video above where they’re swinging sledgehammers at each other? Yeah. It’s a variation on the final duel that I’ve never seen before or since, and it is awesome.
The movie ends how it began, with a benefit concert in the Richmond. Billy Fish, his greed (somewhat) moderated by a lesson in what’s important in life, faces this one with much more good grace than the first.
You know, as I sit here writing this review, something just occurred to me – or rather, some ideas I’ve had about Billy for some time have just coalesced: I get the impression that Billy started out dirt-poor, and has spent his life scratching for success. After all, he does mention earlier on that he used to book bands in the Battery. Having worked so long and so hard to acquire money, he has a hard time thinking in other terms. While watching The Sorels (the carjacked doo-wop band from earlier) make their big debut, knowing that they’re just the opener for his incredibly successful main act (Ellen), he expresses his excitement and hope to a nearby roadie thusly: “You know what, Waldo? We’re gonna be rich.” Fortunately, Waldo understands: “Yeah. Long live rock and roll.”
Maybe I was wrong when I said that the characters in this movie aren’t well-developed.
Anyway, Tom and Ellen, having had their reconciliation, say their goodbyes: they may have reconciled, but they’re still going different directions in life. Tom rides out into the world beyond the Richmond at McCoy’s side, while Ellen sings a song that sums up all the doomed glory of their love (see above).
Like I said, simple but solid. Is a simple, solid action flick enough to make a cult classic, even with the soundtrack? For some, sure. Especially with the sledgehammer duel. But for me, it’s something else. Take a look at this trailer:
That world you’re about to enter…a title card before the credits describes it as “Another Time, Another Place”. The city is never named, just districts like the Richmond and the Battery (whether Tom’s home, the Bayside, is another district or another town is never quite explained). The clothes, the cars, the buildings, the technology (see above re. telegram), the nightlife scenes, even the picture of Ellen in Tom’s wallet all stubbornly refuse to help us get a fix on just where and when we are. Every time we’re almost sure that we’re in the Fifties (minus most, but not all, of the racial animus), we run headlong into the Eighties.
The answer is in the long version of the title: Streets of Fire: A Rock and Roll Fable.
This is not our world. Like that title card says, it is Another Time, Another Place, and that Time and Place are American rock & roll. This is a fantasy world, as mythic and epic as any – it even has its own Mordor in the dark and brooding industrial hell of the Battery – but instead of being based on European myth via Tolkien and Lewis, like most of the fantasy worlds that spring to mind when you hear the term, this is a distinctly American myth. This is how we see ourselves when that old Rock-Ola jukebox starts to play. This is a world where every car is a Detroit classic; where black-leather bikers rampage until a cowboy rides in (first on an El Train, then on a piece of the aforementioned Detroit rolling iron, then finally on a steel horse of his own) to drive them back into the waste lands; where the City is endless and a traffic tunnel is deserted at night purely so the hero can ride through, a lone traveler from the vast unknown; where the streets are slicked with rain to reflect the neon and the kids are slicked with sweat from dancing on a hot summer night.
Mythic and Epic? Yes. American mythic, Epic Rock.
And I love it. Dark as it can be, with its clashes between the Brutal and the Brave (with the Authorities helpless to stop either), it’s like a home I wish I could go to. I love it like I loved Neverland when I was a kid. It’s a timeless place, where Tom and Ellen will always be young and glorious. He’ll never end up working at a factory because he got too old for the soldier-of-fortune game. Her career will forever be on the rise; she’ll never appear on a VH1 “where are they now” episode or get any comments from the press about how she’s raising her and Billy’s three kids. The citizens of the Richmond will always love Ellen and never curse her for “selling out”, and they’ll always be young themselves, dancing and cheering at a free rock show from the local girl made good. Tom and Ellen will never look back at their goodbye with regret, or worse, indifference or forgetfulness. Like Danny and Sandy driving off to Rock & Roll Heaven at the end of Grease, they’ll forever be in that moment of bittersweet goodbye, of If you need me I’ll be there and Tonight is what it means to be young.
It’s a world beyond the Shining Horizon. It is part of the dream that helps to drive mine. Just look at The Truth of Rock and Roll in the Bookstore if you don’t believe me. How can I stay away?
Looking back at this review, I’m a little embarrassed. That got pretty effusive. Still, I guess that letting your heart pour out is what writing is all about. And I did warn you.
Don’t worry. Stick around, and I promise that future reviews will be more analytical. A bit. Some of them.