With its title stirred by a Bruce Springsteen song, from his 1978 album Darkness of the Edge of Town, Streets of Fire was christened as cinema’s first – if not the only – “rock and roll fable.” It was written and directed by Walter Hill (Alien anthology; The Warriors, 1979) and was released in the summer of 1984. Commercially and critically, the ‘supposed’ blockbuster film almost went down the dingy drain but as time ticked by, it gradually gained a greater cult following – thanks to its splendid musical score.
While filming 48 Hrs. in 1982, another action film by Hill which starred Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy, the idea for Streets of Fire was conceived. As a teenage boy, he dreamed of directing a picture with scenes and things he thought were great – nearly empty trains during nighttime, kissing scenes under the rain, greasers fighting in leather jackets and motorcycles, banters in awkward situations, and the like – all of which are present in the film.
Streets of Fire was a mishmash of two alternate timetables, ‘50s noir and ‘80s glam – with extravagant displays of neon lights reflecting along the filthy wet alleyways and vintage cars and clothing parading the town. Its opening sequence makes use of a ‘bravura graphic technique,’ which has been much imitated recently, like that of Nicolas Refn’s Drive (2011).
Its story revolved around the odd world, or love story, of Tom Cody, a soldier of fortune donned in suspenders and guns, portrayed by Michael Paré, and Ellen Aim, an under aged pop singer in distress and also Cody’s ex-girlfriend, personified by Diane Lane.
The good-looking Michael Paré also starred in The Philadelphia Experiment, a science fiction thriller released in the same year as Streets of Fire did. He was also in the film adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides (1999), where he played the role of an adult Trip Fontaine. Paré bagged the main role because Hill liked his look: a dashing combination of ‘innocent and tough.’
The very young and, quite surprisingly, very sensational Diane Lane, who was then only 19, appeared stunning in her glossy tights and monstrous hairstyle, albeit her horrible lip-synch concerts in. Even though the character of Ellen was originally written as a 28-year old lady, the super skinny Lane exceptionally worked and owned it as she performed pop songs with a groovy fictional band as backup singers, The Attackers. They were a New Wave quintet from Boston who were named Face to Face in real life. (The van scene where these young men serenaded Ellen, a capella, was quite a charm!)
Action flicks are always girded with atrocious antagonists and it should always be this way. In Streets of Fire, the vicious villain who kidnapped Ellen was epitomized by Willem Dafoe as Raven Shaddock, the young man who wore a wicked rockabilly rig and pompadour, rode a mean Harley, and was armed by a gang of punks in leather jackets.
I have always had a keen liking for Dafoe’s villainy, most especially in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, where he played the obnoxious character of Bobby Peru. Wild at Heart did not come into picture until 1990, though, so it is not surprising to see Dafoe portraying a vile role. Sometimes, antagonists overshadow the badassery of protagonists. Dafoe in Streets of Fire definitely belongs to this particular bracket of sometimes.
This light-hearted action film also stars Rick Moranis (Strange Brew, 1983) as Ellen’s geeky and rich boyfriend, Billy Fish, who hired Cody to rescue Aim from Raven’s hands. Amy Madigan (Field of Dreams, 1989) played the termagant woman, McCoy, who accompanied Cody in his quest. She was in a recurring conflict with Clyde the bartender, impersonated by Bill Paxton (Apollo 13, 1995).
Even though it was inspired by a song title, the song ‘Streets of Fire’ was not included in its official soundtrack. However, the movie’s track listing was the entire film’s saving grace. Because of its Wagnerian rock style – a crossover between 19th opera and century 20th century rock & roll and a musical genre associated with Jim Steinman, one of the men behind the film’s musical score – Streets of Fire became a cult classic.
Together with Ry Cooder, Steinman came up with a track listing filled with power ballads interwoven all throughout the story’s occasional macho actions, explosions, and thrusts. Because of this, Streets of Fire bordered between being a musical film and a series of music videos, rather than a full-length motion picture.
In spite of its rough beginnings, Streets of Fire is definitely a gem that should not be forgotten and shelved. Its flashy eighties feel entwined with classy fifties aura made it shine in its cheap, but pretty satisfying, glory.