MESSED UP AND MUSICAL: Streets of Fire (1984)

Streets of Fire is no ordinary movie. It is, as the poster promises, “a rock ‘n roll fable.” It also feels like it comes from a reality unlike our own, a place of perpetual night, thanks to a majority of the film being shot on two large sets that were covered in a tarp 1,240 feet long by 220 feet wide. Outside of night shoots in Chicago, it’s basically a soundstage film, which adds to its otherworldly feel.

The Chicago in Streets of Fire is a world where it rains all the time, where neighborhoods have their own color palette and people speak in an exaggerated tough guy language that led Roger Ebert to say that this was 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.”

Director and writer Walter Hill (48 HoursThe Warriors) wanted to create a new action hero, something that felt like a comic book that wasn’t based on any existing character, the first in a new franchise of films about a character called The Stranger (who became known as Tom Cody). Oh yeah. It was also going to be a musical.

Hill’s vision was to create a film that had everything he loved as a teenager: “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.”

He had other rules: no one under the age of 30 and because he saw the film as a fairy tale, the violence was to be stylized. No one was to die.

After clashing with Paramount head Michael Eisner over the film feeling similar to an Indiana Jones film (no one would have that argument after seeing the final product), Hill sold the film to Universal. Named for the Bruce Springsteen song, you’d think that Bruce would be included on the soundtrack. Indeed, music is incredibly essential to the final film, so Meatloaf and Alice Cooper co-conspirator Jim Steinman came in to write the song that closes the film, “Tonight is What it Means to Be Young.” The song was so good — it was written in two days, believe it or not — that it led to a $1 million reshoot, as the film had the Springsteen song already shot as the ending.

Again, the final product is just strange. Co-writer Larry Gross (the writer of 48 HoursTrue Crime and Prozac Nation)  had a moment late in the production where he realized that “this movie is somewhat weirder than we thought.” He said the failure of the film was because “our commitment to be stylized was thorough and conscious and maybe too extreme for the mainstream audience.”

In another time, another place, in an unnamed city, rock star Ellen Aim (Diane Lane, known to today’s moviegoers as Martha Kent in the DC Comics movies) returns home to put on a show with her band, the Attackers. However, The Bombers, a motorcycle gang led by Raven Shaddock (Willem Dafoe, The Last Temptation of Christ, 2009’s Antichrist, not the one with the goat licking), kidnaps her.

Reva Cody (Deborah Van Valkenburgh, Mercy from The Warriors) hires her brother Tom (Michael Paré, The Philadelphia ExperimentEddie and the Cruisers) to rescue Ellen (who also happens to be his ex-girlfriend). He brings in McCoy (Amy Madigan, The Dark Half), a fellow ex-soldier who can drive anything. And Reva brings in Billy Fish (Rick Moranis, GhostbustersStrange Brew), Ellen’s manager and boyfriend.

What follows is stylized action with Cody and McCoy breaking into the gang’s base and rescuing Ellen, all while the rock star argues with Cody as to why he saved her. She thinks it was about money and he tells her that at one point in his life, he would have done anything to save her. But now, it’s all changed.

Finally, Cody decides to leave Ellen behind, as he can’t see a future where he can be what she needs him to be. He has a final battle with Raven, which he wins, and Raven is carried away by his gang. After one final goodbye, Cody and McCoy ride off into the neon, rain-soaked night. Basically, the movie ends like Casablanca.

Streets of Fire is packed with great minor characters that populate its strange world. EG Daily (Dottie in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and the voice of Tommy Pickles on Rugrats) plays Baby Doll. Richard Lawson (Sugar HillPoltergeist and the stepfather of Beyoncé and Solange Knowles) plays a police officer who tries to keep Cody and Raven apart. Bill Paxton plays a bartender. And Lee Ving from Fear is even in the film (he also played Mr. Boddy in Clue, which is a great trivia question if you ever want to use it). There’s even a fake band, The Sorels, made up of actors Stoney Jackson, Grand Bush (Balrog in Street Fighter), Mykelti Williamson and comedian Robert Townsend.

You can see the influence of Streets of Fire in some interesting places, mainly in the video games and animation of Japan. Capcom’s Final Fight owes a big debt to the film. And the anime Bubblegum Crisis has featured musical sequences and songs that were taken almost 100% from the film. Here’s a great distillation of the Western influences that shaped that anime:

I can’t speak objectively about this movie. I love it. I love that it’s so completely off the rails, that it is not tied to our real world at all, that it’s a musical, that it appears to be based on something but it’s actually an original story. I remember watching it on VHS as a teenager and wishing that everyone in the film was a real person that I could spend more time getting to know.

There were plans to do two more Tom Cody films — The Far City and Cody’s Return, but the failure of the film ended those plans. However, Albert Pyun (The Sword and the SorcererDollman) directed 2008’s Road to Hell, an unofficial sequel that has Paré as Cody.

Shout! Factory has finally come to the rescue of everyone who wanted this on blu-ray and released what is the definitive version of the film. I suggest that you purchase it immediately, as I need more people to talk about this movie with!

7 thoughts on “MESSED UP AND MUSICAL: Streets of Fire (1984)

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