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Streets of Fire

Here’s a little obscurity that’s been on my watch list for some time now. Ever since I stumbled onto this little ditty.

That song with the goddamn killer piano riff is “Nowhere Fast”, produced in 1984 by the legendary Jimmy Iovine. It was written by Jim Steinman, fresh off of the world-conquering success of Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and the rest of her Faster Than the Speed of Night album. Steinman is also half the reason behind the tremendous success of Meat Loaf, who covered his own version of the song that same year.

You probably haven’t heard of “Nowhere Fast”. But I’ll bet you’ve heard of “I Can Dream About You” by Dan Hartman, the gold-certified smash that came from the exact same soundtrack. Specifically, the soundtrack for Streets of Fire. Intrigued yet? Keep reading.

“Nowhere Fast” — in addition to “Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young”, also written by Steinman for the same movie — was performed by Laurie Sargent and Holly Sherwood under the short-lived shared alias of “Fire Incorporated.” But as you may have noticed in the video, their voices were being lip-synched by Diane Lane. Yeah. Diane Lane is in this movie. Her in addition to Michael Pare, Rick Moranis, Amy Madigan, Willem Dafoe, and Bill Paxton, every one of whom was virtually unknown and barely more than a teenager when this movie got made.

And all of this happened under co-writer/director Walter Hill, five years after he had earned fame and fortune for the enduring cult classic The Warriors. And like The Warriors, this “rock & roll fable” was a gritty yet colorful story of good vs. evil, blending a distinctly urban setting with alleged influences from classical storytelling. It’s a film that translates “once upon a time,” to mean some vague point in the middle of the twentieth century, definitely modern and yet somehow timeless.

But here’s the thing: Walter Hill had a cross-generational PG-13 sensibility in a time when the PG-13 rating didn’t exist yet. Before July of 1984 (only a month after Streets of Fire hit theaters), there was only PG and R with no grey area between them. Warriors leaned toward the R rating, embracing the darker and more violent aspects of its premise in spite of the goofier moments and the motley cast of themed gangs.

Streets of Fire, on the other hand, erred on the side of PG. Try to picture a PG film with strippers, drunkards, and rampant street violence. You can start to see why this movie (and also The Warriors, come to think of it) was critically and commercially panned upon release, but has developed a kind of cult following in the post-PG-13 era.

The story is a simple one. Diane Lane plays Ellen Aim, an acclaimed singer who’s returned to play a concert at her unnamed hometown. The concert is very quickly crashed by Raven Shaddock (Willem Dafoe), a comically evil gangster who storms in with his comically evil motorcycle gang to ransack the neighborhood and kidnap Ellen. Luckily, the concert was attended by Reva Cody (Deborah Van Valkenburgh, another Warriors alum), who passes the word along to her little brother (Tom Cody, played by Michael Pare). Turns out that Tom broke up with Ellen a few years ago, and he just got back in town after a time in the military. Reluctantly, Tom agrees to track down Ellen and bring her back.

Assisting him is McCoy (Amy Madigan) a tomboy/war veteran/drunkard/ace engineer/street brawler. There’s also Billy Fish (Rick Moranis), a snooty little dweeb who’s currently Ellen’s manager/boyfriend. As for Bill Paxton, he plays a meatheaded bartender who’s an old school friend of Tom’s.

Every character in the cast is paper-thin, and none of the actors even bother trying to pretend otherwise. Sometimes, that means we get characters who are a lot of over-the-top fun to watch (Dafoe, natch), and there are times when we get characters who are ungodly annoying (a little Moranis goes a very long way). The script was reportedly a huge concern behind the scenes, and it’s proven in the hokey dialogue and the flimsy, ill-paced plot. The editing is a joke, which makes the action straight-up laughable. I get that there are so many shootouts and explosions and car crashes and they’re all fun to watch, but they’re all chopped together in such an incoherent and blatantly fake way that it’s hard to take the action scenes seriously.

Of course, the flip side is that all of this adds to the movie’s over-the-top charm. EVERYTHING in this movie is cranked up to eleven in a way that lends a goofy kind of appeal. This is the kind of oddball tone where it’s hard to tell if the hilarity is unintentional. Of course, the film bills itself as a “rock and roll fable”, made for the explicit purpose of presenting an adult story within a fractured fairy tale framework, and that buys the picture a lot of leeway. Even if the “fairy tale” label is nothing more than a lame excuse for a cliched cookie-cutter plot.

It also helps that the film manages to be retro in a way that doesn’t feel confined to any one particular time period. It lends the picture a universal kind of appeal while also courting nostalgia, and that’s not an easy balance to pull off. (Dark City is still probably my favorite example of how it’s done right.)

It’s hard not to get swept up in the film’s nostalgia for the aesthetics and musical stylings of the ’50s and ’60s. Additionally, the film is flooded with dark shadows and bright neon, which makes for a dazzling contrast. There’s also a mean anti-authoritarian streak in here, delivered with such a flippant attitude that’s a lot of fun to partake in. And did I mention that the soundtrack is amazing?

Streets of Fire is a completely brain-dead and campy movie, but it’s hard to tell whether the filmmakers knew how brain-dead and campy it was. The visuals are impressively crafted, in spite of the terrible editing, and there’s a plucky sort of energy that keeps the film moving and energetic in spite of the weak script. Naturally, the soundtrack — particularly the songs done with Jim Steinman’s trademark operatic excess — contributes to a lot of that energy.

Is it a good movie? Not really. But is it a fun movie? Fuck yes.

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