Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young: Streets Of Fire
Neon signs are reflected on a wet city street. A crowd dressed in the clothes of another time step excitedly onto the slick pavement, headed toward a marquee adorned with: Ellen Aim and the Attackers. The citizens are caught up in the rare thrill of such an event gracing their humble environment. Working class people rush from work, throwing off aprons to make it to the show in time. The band begins to play, and Ellen (Diane Lane) runs on stage, her entrance timed to match the beginning of her vocals in the song "Nowhere Fast", a rousing anthem of teenage escapism. A door to the hall opens, and the dim light from without casts both the newly arrived interlopers and a sea of upraised, clapping hands in eerie silhouette. The stage lights slowly brighten to reveal the menacing visage of Raven Shaddock (Willem Dafoe), leader of the powerful gang known as The Bombers. In the moment of quiet following the end of the song, a command is given. Ellen is pulled forcibly from the stage, and taken away on motorcycle by the gang.
The sister of Ellen's old flame Tom Cody (Michael Pare) is witness to the capture, and sends a telegraph that brings him to town, under the pretense of a familial visit. When told about Ellen, he claims not to care. Ellen is seeing her manager, Billy Fish (Rick Moranis), and Tom doesn't want to go rescue "an old girlfriend who's shacked up with another guy". It's denial, typical of someone who keeps his true feelings hidden. The memory of her still burns inside of him, and in this world where the past holds sway in the present, Tom will fight to get her back, even if their reunion may not last.
Streets of Fire is one of my favorite films of all time. A unique and visually striking blend of action, music and emotion, it is to me a thing of rare and exhilarating beauty. Here Walter Hill's noir tough guy archetypes and superb action filmmaking collide with the theatricality of a non traditional rock musical. Hill had more casually linked music with narrative in his classic film The Warriors, using a radio DJ character as both narrator and presenter of the film's excellent soundtrack. But in that film, the character hovers above the action, a functionally external element. In Streets of Fire, he threads the music into an organic, inseparable part of the story, in part by having a main protagonist, along with a few secondary ones, be musicians themselves. Their dramatic stage performances also thematically bookend the film, the music further melded into its world.
While the great Ry Cooder is responsible for the classic rock and roll flavored score of the film, Jim Steinmann created the passionate rock ballads of the fictional Ellen Aim and the Attackers. Steinmann is a brilliant maverick artist, and a master at capturing the intense and operatic nature of wild youth. His work on both Bat Out Of Hell albums features emotion on this grand scale, which he again taps into here. He is the perfect choice for a film that is both unusual and sincere. There are years in our lives when first love and painful self discovery paint the world as a place of high stakes emotion. To characterize Steinman's work on the subject as melodramatic is to neglect that all feelings at this period in life are of epic size - the question of who will go out with you feels like a life or death choice. Being melodramatic is in fact the precisely correct approach to the subject, an exact match in scale. The fire of youth may look overblown to an observer outside of its effects, but to the person experiencing it, it is simply reality.
A title card at he film's opening announces ''Another time Another place". The issue of time is particularly fascinating. Cars, archetypes, and buildings suggest a large American city in the 1940's or 50's. But it is a city we've never seen, from an imagined past. A war, never elaborated upon, has recently ended. Tom, in fact, has just gotten out of the service, and Amy Madigan's Mccoy is a female ex soldier, again a distinctly modern detail. There are televisions and music videos - the video for the song "Sorcerer", written by Stevie Nicks, which may be my favorite from the soundtrack, finds its way into the film in this form. Some of the hairstyles, clothes, and gender dynamics are also much more in tune with the 1980's. The battery, a run down industrial region of the city which is completely controlled by The Bombers, is almost post - apocalyptic in appearance. By combining two distinct time periods, both of which are now behind us, and combining them in such a novel way, Streets of Fire has become timeless itself.
This world out of step with time is stunningly rendered by the cinematography of master craftsman Andrew Laszlo. He presents us with a near ceaseless series of striking images, natural darkness and artificial light blending in motion. Night in the city holds all of the anticipation, excitement, energy and threat attendant to nocturnal adventure. This is the kind of night photography I adore, when the absence of the sun gives way to the intermittent warmth of man-made illumination, splashing people and cars as they pass. Headlights blare in twilight gloom. The Battery's low light ambers and eerie greens, a biker nightmare made tangible. An ever present shimmer of neon on wet pavement. Hill's perfectly executed action sequences, including one in which Tom causes Bomber motorcycles to explode by blasting them with his shotgun, are some of the most gorgeous ever filmed. The intense stage lights which accompany the concert performances are cast in deep color, giving a luminous profile to its subjects. Ellen pops pure red in front of solid darkness, her back up singers bathed in blue, these moments have a bold, emotive quality. One of the posters for the movie describes it perfectly as "A Rock Fantasy". Thanks to Laszlo, it sure looks like one. Be it the pageantry of rock performance, or the grit of aging urban landscape, Streets of Fire has a glow that entrances, a mesmerizing visual heart, pulsing to a rock and roll beat.
A movie with many facets, Streets of fire is as much a romance as anything else, surrounding an estranged couple's reunion. It's easy to buy into the romantic aspect of the movie in part because the lovers in question happen to be played by two of the most beautiful actors ever captured on film. And they too are being photographed by Andrew Laszlo. Michael Pare's Tom Cody is an archetypally cool tough guy, calm under pressure and moody otherwise - at least when he's not joy riding in a stolen car. He strikes quite an image wearing a long khaki duster and five o'clock shadow.Ellen Aim is more elegant than a typical pop idol, thanks to the strength that Diane Lane brings to the role, a kind of stubborn toughness. Both Pare and Lane convey the tension of two people struggling with the sting of resentment for one another over the way their relationship ended, and the much more powerful longing to pick up where they left off. The unsustainability of their regained connection rings with surprising truth. The rest of the excellent cast is thankfully just as sincere and invested in the story and its world, fully living within it. Also featured is Bill Paxton, whose presence in any movie from the 1980's is a virtual guarantee of its excellence.
During her performance of "Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young" at the close of the story, and moments after what will be their final kiss, Tom is shown watching Ellen from the crowd, just as Raven had done. This brilliant parallel delineates the difference between the movie's hero and its villain. Raven and Tom share a desire for Ellen, but Raven captures her forcibly, unable to bear his own base, empty infatuation. Tom, by contrast, actually loves her, but is strong enough to understand that his feelings should not undermine Ellen's future - he cares for her enough to resist his own longing, deep as it may be. She is meant to pursue a separate path, and he knows it. He's man enough to let her go and endure the heartache, strong where Raven is weak. There is a moment between verses when Ellen sees him turn and leave the concert hall, and for a second the wrenching heartbreak registers on her face, before she resumes the song, now painfully acquainted with its meaning. Only when we've passed it are we given perspective to see youth for what it is, and that it cannot last. When we are young, the world is the future of all possible things, of infinite potential. It is when everything we want, everyone we want, is still within reach.