Monday, September 17, 2012

The Camp and Cult Blogathon :: The Marty McFly Effect :: Walter Hill's Streets of Fire (1984)

Our rock 'n' roll fable opens in an unnamed, neon-drenched city of a distant future or an alternative-fictionalized past, where Ellen Aim (Lane) and the Attackers, over the protests of her manager / boyfriend, Billy Fish (Moranis), return to her rough-n-tumble borough of origin for a concert. Everyone seems to be enjoying the performance, though; some more than others -- namely the Bombers, a group of motorcycle riding hooligans, who crash the show, trash the theater, and kidnap the headliner to be the new plaything for their smitten leader, Raven (Dafoe). After witnessing all of this, the local diner owner gets word to her soldier of fortune brother, Tom Cody (Paré), to come home, kick some ass, chew some bubblegum, and fix this mess. And now that I think about it -- never mind the bubblegum. Totally irrelevant to the situation. Lets forget I even brought it up.

Heeding the call, things get complicated with the revelation that Cody and Aim used to be an item, but, with the reluctant help of Fish, Cody arms up and heads into the Battery to raid the Bombers hangout, bust some heads, and get his old flame back. But getting there and rescuing Aim is only half the battle, with a long and arduous fight to get back out and into friendlier territory still to come with the enraged Bombers behind them and corrupt cops blocking the way out. And though he claims to be doing it just for Fish's reward money, Cody's motivations soon become clear when the bullets start flying and things start exploding in between several raucous musical interludes as the old, smoldering flame between these two flares up as the city burns around them...

Since his bare-knuckle brawling epic, Hard Times (1975), where he made his directorial debut, filmmaker Walter Hill had been on a roll. Even before then, with screenwriting credits for Hickey and Boggs, The Getaway, and The Drowning Pool Hill's status as a Hollywood A-Lister was already well and firmly bona fide. But after Hard Times, whether serving as writer, director or producer, or all of the above, Hill could seemingly do no wrong with the likes of The Driver and The Long Riders, and cult classics like Southern Comfort and The Warriors, or when he let Ridley Scott and Dan O'Bannon scare the living shit out of all of us with Alien. After seeing Hard Times, John Wayne personally asked Hill to direct The Shootist, but Hill reluctantly turned him down because he was too big a fan and couldn't bare to direct J.B. Books' (and Wayne's) final, fatal shoot-out.

Hill always was a huge, self-proclaimed fan of westerns and insists the genre heavily influenced all of his films. And it was while shooting another sure fire hit, 48 Hours, that Hill got the notion for another oddball western, combining it with his obsession 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 questions of honor." Taking this idea of a rock 'n' roll neo-noir to his producers, Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver, and screenwriter Jerry Gross, they all loved it; and while Gordon and Silver pitched it to Universal, Hill and Gross began hammering out a script. And when 48 Hours hit big, the studio quickly gave these collaborators the green light to keep on keeping on.

Originally, Hill copped the title of the film from a Bruce Springsteen song, Streets of Fire, from Darkness on the Edge of Town, and was [-this-] close to getting the song into the film until the Boss realized Hill had every intention of re-recording the song, to be performed by his heroine, and withdrew. Now. I love Springsteen, but, to the film's betterment, Hill then turned to Jim Steinman, whose pompous, operatic rock tunes had Meatloaf rocketing to the top of the charts like a Bat Out of Hell in the 1970's, and it was the composer who really sets the tone of the film to come.

Video courtesy of sfmmist

When it came to casting, the same agent who recommended Eddie Murphy for 48 Hours sold Hill on Michael Paré as Tom Cody. Paré had just wrapped up Eddie and the Cruisers and Hill felt the actor brought the perfect balance of toughness and innocence to the part. Paré's initial breakthrough role came as one of Ralph Hinkley's remedial students in The Greatest American Hero, and had a near, brief flash of stardom in the early 1980's. He certainly had the looks and the physicality of an action hero, but, when it came to actually emoting, this guy was the living embodiment of a 404 Document Not Found Error. For his heroine, Hill overcame his initial reluctance over casting Diane Lane, fearing she was too young (Lane was only 18), and was so impressed with her performance that he kept expanding her part as filming progressed.

However, for the record, that is not Lane singing. She was lip-synching to Holly Sherwood and Laurie Sargent. And Sargent's band, Face to Face, served as Aim's back up band, The Attackers, in the film.

As scripted, Cody's sidekick, McCoy, was supposed to be an overweight lush, but, while auditioning for the role of Cody's sister (-- which eventually went to Deborah Van Valkenburgh), actress Amy Madigan convinced Hill and Silver to change the gender and give her a crack at it. The rest of the cast is admirably filled out with Willem DaFoe, giving another whackadoodle performance as the venomous Raven, complete with a completely fubar hairdo that brings to mind a king cobra, as the villain, Rick Moranis, knocking 'em dead as the odious comedy relief, and a handy Bill Paxton loitering around to get punched in the face whenever needed.

The film was shot in Chicago, an abandoned soap factory, and on the Universal back-lot, where production designer John Vallone put a giant tarp over several city blocks to make it perpetually night to intensify all that neon glow reflecting off the consistently wet streets (-- but it never seems to rain, bringing into question the source of all that dampness). Shooting ran for five months with Hill in the director's chair and Andrew Lazlo behind the camera, both of whom worked hard to give the film a harsh, industrialized edge -- a bizarre amalgamation of hard-boiled noir, Steam Punk, Ozzie and Harriet and an old-fashioned Sock Hop. Truthfully, considering when it was made, and that killer soundtrack it sports, it's not hard to look at Streets of Fire as nothing more than one long -- or a series of music videos, with the kidnapping and rescue plot stringing them together. And with the explosive popularity of MTV back then, one has to wonder how this film backfired so badly at the box-office?

Yeah, Streets of Fire was a rare box-office flop for Hill and barely made back half of its production costs, which officially scuttled Hill's original plans for a Tom Cody trilogy. Most of the blame fell on the leads. Lane hadn't quite perfected her craft yet, but she still acted circles around Paré during their romantic interludes, which all clunk pretty badly. To his credit, Paré fares just fine, even excels, during the action set-pieces (-- ably assisted by bulldog Madigan), especially the climactic sledgehammer fight with Dafoe (-- a scene that took nine days to shoot). The film's soundtrack album fared better, buoyed by Dan Hartman's top ten hit "I Can Dream About You", and combining that with Steinman's bombastic-ness, Hill's unique vision of a dystopian future, a mind-blowing striptease, and a metric ton of blunt one-liners, kept the film from fading into permanent obscurity.

And I proudly belong to the tenacious cult that glommed onto Streets of Fire and find myself bopping and weaving and "Hell Yeah-ing!" to its percussive beat whenever I give it another spin. One of the few reviewers who didn't completely paste it back in 1984 was Roger Ebert, who dug what Hill was trying to do with his world-building, saying, "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." I can dig that, too, and Ebert's right on the money. Which is why I always describe Streets of Fire as what the world would have looked like in 1984 if Marty McFly had only borked things up when he went back in time to 1955, got stuck there, and, like a pebble in a pond, his impact eventually re-shaped the world to come. It could have been awesome, and I've never hated Robert Zemeckis more than I do right now.

This post is my meager contribution to She Blogged By Night's Camp and Cult Movie Blogathon. Now follow the link, get your hinders in gear, and get to reading all of the other fine entries

Streets of Fire (1984) Universal Pictures :: RKO Pictures / EP: Gene Levy / P: Joel Silver, Lawrence Gordon / AP: Mae Woods / D: Walter Hill / W: Walter Hill, Larry Gross / C: Andrew Laszlo / E: Jim Coblentz, Freeman A. Davies, Michael Ripps / M: Ry Cooder / S: Michael Paré, Diane Lane, Rick Moranis, Amy Madigan, Willem Dafoe, Deborah Van Valkenburgh, Lee Ving, Bill Paxton


Stacia said...

when it came to actually emoting, this guy was the living embodiment of a 404 Document Not Found Error


This is great stuff, WB. I have wanted to see this film for probably 20 years, ever since seeing an interview with Dan Hartman complaining about the original video using the band in the movie as vocalists; people didn't realize they were just actors. I think a second video with him was eventually made.

Somehow Diane Lane completely flew under my radar until her so-called comeback with "Unfaithful," so I really must see this to catch up on her career.

W.B. Kelso said...

Thanks! I love this flick unconditionally, despite its faults. Jim Steinman just rocks my face off.

Lane is great, and I think the best work she ever did was in LONESOME DOVE. And Pare is like a big errant puppy. You can't help but like him despite all the messes he makes.

Also, when you do finally track it down, every time Bill Paxton gets punched in the face, finish your drink.

Gassyknoll said...

I watched this last year, for the first time, and while I remember loving the hell out of it, I find myself straining to remember much about it, other than I loved the hell out of it.

Maybe that's just the way I watch movies.

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