Streets of Fire is the movie Michael Beck probably should’ve done instead of Xanadu. It was directed and co-created by his director on The Warriors,* Walter Hill, and it handily accomplishes the melding of the 50s and the 80s that Xanadu couldn’t quite pull off. The male lead in this one went instead to Michael Paré (with whom, coincidentally, Beck would eventually star in two seasons of a late 80s cop/buddy show called Houston Knights, an episode of which you can see here, also featuring fellow Streets of Fire cast member Deborah Van Valkenburgh).
The cast, as you may have noticed, is an improbable collection of people one can’t quite believe are in this movie. Paré is really the only straight-up B-movie actor of the bunch, and he’s at the absolutely awesome end of the B-movie scale (a spot he shares with Wings Hauser and Bruce Campbell — B-movie stars who have also had more conventional success). Diane Lane, Amy Madigan, Rick Moranis, and Willem Dafoe all went on to respectable mainstream movie and television. I also cannot watch the Sorels (the African-American doo-wop group in Streets of Fire) without flashing back to Hollywood Shuffle — probably because the group includes Hollywood Shuffle’s star and director, Robert Townsend, and they look like they stepped straight out of the Black Acting School bit from that film (I don’t doubt for a moment that jobs like this one inspired Keenen Ivory Wayans and Townsend to write that film).
Two things make the 50s/80s meld work for Streets of Fire: Hill’s choice to set it in what is effectively an alternate world (the movie is billed as a “rock and roll fable,” set in “another time, another place”) and the music, which skips past disco and moves into everything from blues-rock to the Meat Loaf-style epic sound. The film’s setting has much in common with the alternate universe of the New York gangs in The Warriors (which was really a contemporary stand-in for the ancient world of Xenophon’s Anabasis), and even the police in different neighborhoods are stylistically different from each other. Chicago’s EL frames the fantasy city (several exteriors were shot at EL stops in the city, as well as bits filmed on Lower Wacker). The crunchy post-50s guitar-driven score was provided by blues rocker Ry Cooder, and it moves the action along with considerable verve. Add two massive Jim Steinman numbers, and you’ve got something pretty cool, musically speaking.
So why isn’t this film on everyone’s list of absolutely brilliant films from the 80s?
1) While the film is shot and designed very well, sometimes the script and direction let it down. There’s a conscious attempt here to create a kind of new language for its alternate world (50s tough-guy words in the mouths of 80s people) that occasionally falls flat — it occasionally takes the place of character development, which is unfortunate. Also: Diane Lane at 18 (when she auditioned for the part of Ellen Aim) couldn’t act her way out of a parking ticket, and she and Paré had absolutely no chemistry to speak of. Every time the movie takes time out of the narrative to put them together to talk, the energy of the whole thing just dies.
2) Sometimes its naturalistic moments overwhelm the fable and the fantastic about it, and the result is something that fails to be what it seems to want to be. Also: while the idea of a sledgehammer duel is awesome, its execution on film in this case is…well, not so awesome.
3) It did have one big musical hit — the Dan Hartman version of “I Can Dream About You,” which was not how the song was originally performed (by Winston Ford) in the film. Otherwise, it just didn’t quite catch on.
The fact that more people did not feel “Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young” will always astonish me, because this shit gets me every damn time.
Allegedly, Hill had planned for Streets of Fire to be the first film in a trilogy, following the Tom Cody character on his adventures. Because Streets of Fire tanked at the box office, those sequel stories never happened, which is a shame. Their time has really passed now (and perhaps already had even back then); there’s some little bit of the 70s style in Streets of Fire that the 80s rejects and that the 50s can’t quite catch.
*There are more little Warriors connections and in-jokes here than you can imagine, including Lynne Thigpen’s cameo as a train driver telling Cody (Pare) that he can’t go home. These two movies really ought to be watched back-to-back. The effect is amazing.
The rest of the series, if you’re so inclined:
Rock & Rule