Home Movies by Charles Taylor: Rock 'n' roll heaven

Walter Hill's trashy extravaganza "Streets of Fire" packs a bittersweet, youthful wallop.

Published June 2, 1998 4:37PM (EDT)

There are all kinds of pop culture iconography floating around in Walter
Hill's "Streets of Fire": rock stars; outlaw biker gangs; neon marquees;
Dick Tracy-style police cars; diners that serve up coffee in Syracuse
china; silent, tough-guy heroes; bars that are rowdy dives and bars meant
for quiet, solitary drinking; leather; a battered wallet photo of someone's
sweetheart; lovers' reunions; lovers' breakups; dusters; convertibles;
pompadours; guns. "Streets of Fire" is nothing but iconography, an attempt
to boil down 30 years of pop to its familiar essence and then contain the
whole thing in a comic-strip B movie. The frequently wooden acting
sometimes makes the mock-clichid dialogue sound unintentionally hackneyed;
the plot feels like it was scribbled on a popcorn box during
intermission at a double feature; and unfortunately, for a movie that bills
itself as a rock 'n' roll fable, the big numbers were written by Jim
Steinman, the man responsible for Meat Loaf's rock-operatic horrors.

You could complain that Hill's attention wasn't on directing his actors or
writing dialogue when he made "Streets of Fire." That's what most critics
wrote when the movie opened and bombed in the summer of 1984. But it would
be beside the point. The meaning of the movie, its emotion, is in the way
Hill shoots all those icons. Watching "Streets of Fire" isn't as intimate
as sorting through a trunk of mementos, but it is like stumbling
upon a yellowed catalog and remembering your teenage longing for the things
you were so sure would make you cool.

In many ways, it's just awful, and yet "Streets of Fire" is a knockout
piece of pop craftsmanship. There's rock 'n' roll in the way the picture
looks and in the way it moves. Hill can't simply include a shot of a
teletype machine tapping out a telegram, he has to put a Bo Diddley beat
chugging along behind it. The editors, Freeman Davies and Michael Ripps,
cut from scene to scene with jagged edits that make the movie look as if
someone has dragged a razor across the print, or like a landscape glimpsed
between the cars of a hurtling locomotive.

In the opening sequence, as an urban downtown fills up with kids heading
for a rock show, Hill and his editors bust the action up into shots that
are almost subliminal blips: A diner closes up for the night; a girl checks
her makeup hurriedly in the mirror; neon signs burst into life; the
audience squeezes into the theater. The sequence is all about the jittery,
ritualistic excitement of going out to hear rock 'n' roll, where the right
outfit and the crazy atmosphere is as important as listening to the music.
It's the rock show as a place to celebrate and lose yourself, and it all
builds up to the big opening number. Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) has struck it
big as a rock star and now she's returning to her hard-luck urban hometown
for a benefit gig. She finishes one song before Raven (Willem Dafoe) and
his motorcycle gang, the Bombers, rush the stage and kidnap her. Ellen's
old flame, who has the perfect name of Tom Cody (Michael Pari, who never
looks fully awake), is summoned to rescue her. He takes along Ellen's
manager/boyfriend Billy Fish (Rick Moranis) and McCoy (Amy Madigan), a
tough-talking ex-soldier he picks up in a bar.

You can break down the rest of the plot as neatly as Hill breaks down that
opening sequence: rescue, reconciliation, showdown, breakup. With the
pyrotechnics of Ellen's rescue from a biker bar behind him, Hill has to
fall back on Ellen and Tom patching up their broken romance, and since
there's no depth to the characters or the relationships, the movie loses
steam. But Hill needs this section to get to the unexpected pulp melancholy
waiting at the finale.

Five years before "Streets of Fire," Hill made "The Warriors," his
sensational B movie about a street gang fighting their way through every
borough of New York City to make it back to their home turf on Coney
Island. "The Warriors" was condemned for allegedly stirring up violence,
though what got the audience off is Hill's use of speed and movement. The
martial arts-style fight scenes are shot and edited in lightning-fast
bursts that pack a kinetic charge. (A friend of mine calls "The Warriors"
the greatest dance movie ever made.)

"Streets of Fire" is an attempt to push that aesthetic into an even more
compressed and abstract style. But in the five years between the two
movies, MTV made its debut, and with dozens of bad movies aping what was
going on there, critics felt free to dismiss "Streets of Fire" as a rock
video -- though I'd be willing to bet that most of the critics who made
that charge couldn't have named three rock videos. (The fact that most of
them didn't even bother to call it a bad rock video suggested that it never
occurred to them that there could be such a thing as a good one.) It's a
laughable charge when you compare this tightly made movie to the rock
videos of the era, which now look so primitive. I don't mean to suggest
that Hill didn't have rock video's visual shorthand in mind when he made
"Streets of Fire," just that he went beyond it.

"Streets of Fire" takes place in a world ruled by youthful fantasies of
escape, rebellion and excitement. In the daytime scenes, the cars and
boarded-up storefronts all recede into the same shade of dusty gray.
Everyone in the movie lives for the night. We've all seen neon reflected in
wet pavement, but never in the hard, vivid tones that cinematographer
Andrew Laszlo gets here. If chrome could bleed, it would look like the
colors that run together in the streets of this movie. At times, the
picture proceeds by subconscious links of sound and motion, as when a drum
roll seems to set off a fluttering light show of neon figures.

For an action movie, there's something very interior about "Streets of
Fire." It feels like something you fantasized about as a kid alone in your
room acting out to records, imagining yourself a combination of rock star
and superhero. The music in the movie has no relation to the changes
brought on by punk (except in the biker's bar sequence where the house band
is L.A.'s early '80s punkabilly outfit the Blasters, who perform two
terrific numbers, "One Bad Stud" and "Blue Shadows"), and not really to
cheesy '80s new wave, either. The concert scenes understand the rock show
as spectacle, capturing both the thrill of getting lost in a crowd, adding
your voice to its gigantic roar and being on the receiving end of that
roar. In one shot, we see Ellen on stage from behind as the house lights go
up to reveal a wall of fans so tall it appears to be towering over her. It
wouldn't be surprising if she offered herself up for sacrifice.

The number she sings in the final scene is called "Tonight Is What It Means
to Be Young." She and Tom had their lovers' farewell before she took the
stage, and he makes his way out through the crowd, leaving both the music
and her behind until he's alone on the pavement underneath the marquee that
sports her name. The scene is meant to be about the moment when you leave
adolescent thrills behind. That's a reductive view of pop culture. Hill
shows no inkling that the meaning of rock 'n' roll can abide and deepen as
you get older. (In my mid-'30s, I'm still going out to hear bands, and I
find myself more ravenous than ever for new music.) But emotionally, the
scene exerts a pull. It calls up the friends, enthusiasms and flames that
must inevitably pass away. "Streets of Fire" starts out as a comic book and
winds up as a trash movie version of "These Foolish Things," leaving you
more wistful than trash has any right to.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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