Armagideon Time

(originally posted on January 2, hair 2008)

Today we have an excerpt from Andrew’s Notes on the Grand Unified Theory of Pop Culture:

Even before production finished on 1982’s Nick Nolte/Eddie Murphy cuss word vector, approved 48 Hrs., director Walter Hill, screenwriter Larry Gross, and producers Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver has already started work on their next project, a “rock and roll musical” intended as a big budget follow up on the cult success of Hill and Gordon’s 1979 film, The Warriors.

The end result was Streets of Fire, an art-directed mess of a film and one of the the summer of 1984’s bigger cinematic bombs, grossing a little more than half of its $14.5 million production costs during its initial run. Frequently evoked as a poster child of the style over substance ethos and as a cautionary example of adhering to an “MTV” aesthetic, the film has since gone on to be a modest cult favorite, spurred on by countless showings on basic cable during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Fans of the film tend toward rabidity, while the unconverted tend to just shake their heads sadly whenever the subject is brought up.

It’s not bad for what it is, a minor action/romance timewaster set in a very 1980’s reimagining of 1950’s Chicago. Tough but tender mercenary Cody (played by tabula rasa Michael Paré) returns home to rescue his old flame, rock goddess Ellen Aim (played by the stunningly gorgeous Diane Lane)…

…from a pack of fiendish bikers led by the lean and fearsome Raven (played by Willem Dafoe, who rocks the “shirtless in pleather overalls” look like no one’s business). The battle between good and evil culminates with a sledgehammer fight beneath the El tracks, which is how more movies ought to end. (I’m talking to you, P.S. I Love You.)

It’s certainly not the worst way to spend ninety minutes, and there’s plenty of fun to be had in spotting the supporting cast members, which include, among others, Robert Townsend (as a doo-wop singer), Rick Moranis (as Ellen Aim’s manager), Fear frontman Lee Ving (as Raven’s lieutenant), Elizabeth “E.G.” Daily (as a groupie), and the always welcome Bill Paxton (as “Clyde the Bartender”).

The film’s soundtrack also encroaches (cheesily, but still) on excellence, which is kind of important for a quasi-musical — sorry, a rock and roll fable (as opposed to an acid jazz parable or a jump blues syllogism.) The only track from the score that registered on the popular consciousness was Dan Hartman’s “I Can Dream About You” (lipsynched by a moonwalkin’ doo-wop act in the film and music video) which made it into the Top 40 charts, making it a bigger success than the film itself.

The Fixx and The Blasters also contributed songs, but the movie’s signature sound (apart from Ry Cooder’s distinctively twangy score) comes from the tracks “performed” by Ellen Aim and her band, The Attackers (played by Boston new wave outfit Face to Face), particularly the two bombastic rock tracks (“Nowhere Fast” and “Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young”) penned by Jim Steinman (the man who gave Meat Loaf his flavor) and performed by Fire, Inc., a front band featuring frequent Steinman collaborators Holly Sherwood and Rory Dodd.

Fire, Inc. – Nowhere Fast (from the Streets of Fire OST, 1984) – Judging it as a rock song, I’d have to say it makes a perfectly adequate show tune.

Ellen Aim’s other overdubbed efforts featured vocal performances by Face to Face’s Laurie Sargent and Maria (Lone Justice) McKee. Oh, and guitarist/Weird Al collaborator/pinball wizard Rick Derringer was also involved in some capacity.

(On a side note, the movie’s title and ostensible inspiration were drawn from Bruce Springsteen’s “Darkness at the Edge of Town,” but The Boss balked over the proposal to have other performers rerecord the song for the film.)

As I mentioned before, the film tanked at the box office. “Tonight is what it means to be dead,” remarked Joel Silver upon seeing the initial grosses, paraphrasing the movie’s tagline. I can remember hanging out on the roof of a friend’s garage with our neighborhood gang back in the summer of ’84, arguing over what movie to see. We split along gender lines; the girls wanted to see Streets of Fire and the boys wanted to see (I swear, though the release dates don’t line up) Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn. The boys won, as much as sitting through a lousy Charles Band 3-D sci-fi flick can be viewed as “winning.”

Though unappreciated upon its release, Streets of Fire went on to have a significant influence in Japan, where its hyper-stylized aesthetic dovetailed nicely with then-contemporary trends in anime. (You can’t go wrong with bad boys and idol singers in that market.) The first installment of Megazone 23 features a scene where the principal characters attend a showing of the film, but the original Bubblegum Crisis OVA series took the homage a couple steps further with the character of Priss Asagiri…

…a rock singer-slash-cyberpunk avenger whose look and sound are directly patterned after Ellen Aim’s.

Priss and The Replicants – Akuma to Tenchi no Kiss (from Bubblegum Crisis: Complete Vocal Collection, 2000) – A case of going one better than the source material, I’d argue. The band’s name is a clever (well, I thought so) homage to another, equally art-directed 80’s flick.

The trans-Pacific love for Streets of Fire wasn’t limited to anime offerings, either. The lead designer of Capcom’s Final Fight, the quintessential example of the co-op “beat ’em up” videogame genre, was very much smitten with the movie. That would explain why the game features a character named Cody, a scruffy street fightin’ man with a more-than-passing resemblance to Michael Paré, punching and kicking through a city full of thugs in order to rescue his girlfriend. (He is assisted in his efforts by a ninja and a pro wrestler — thus providing a wonderful capsule view of the late 80’s zeitgeist. All that’s missing is Fido Dido.) Personally, I lament the fact the game didn’t feature a playable analogue for Amy Madigan’s tough-as-nails mercenary character from the film.

After a nine-year abscence, Cody (now an escaped convict) went on to join the cast of Street Fighter Alpha 3 before appearing as a supporting character (and ‘roided up monstrous adversary) in the excremental Final Fight: Streetwise. As of late, Michael Paré has been working with director (and I use that term in the loosest sense of the word) Uwe Boll in films such as BloodRayne (I and II), Far Cry, and Postal, which, I have to admit, is an even worse fate than the one suffered by his videogame counterpart.

2012 postscript: Nothing to add, really, except that the P.S. I Love You reference sure turned out to be a timelost bit of popcult flotsam.

7 Responses to “The Best of AT: Better rev it up and put it to use”

  1. Mitchell Craig

    For me, the outstanding thing about Streets of Fire was Marine Jahan’s striptease number during the raid on Raven’s hideout.

    But hey…it’s me.

  2. Brimstone

    I liked this movie, but it wasn’t over the top enough and wasn’t enough about the power of rock and roll.

    But my inner fantasy world looks like a combination of Bat out of Hell and Born to Run ALL THE TIME.

  3. Jason Langlois

    I love the movie, in part because it’s seems almost entirely self-aware of the tropes of the action film even as it trots each of them out and puts them through their paces. But then it’s also got the music and the performance by Willem Dafoe to just send it into crazy-town.

    What’s amusing to me is that Walter Hill was kind of accused of a too-fast direction style… but compared to films today, his stuff moves at the pace of cold molasses.

  4. Minkubus

    Did Jim Steinman ever write anything that WASN’T a perfectly adaquate show tune?

  5. Kris

    Between this movie and “To Live and Die in L.A.” it’s no wonder I was completely freaked out by Willem Dafoe when I was a kid.

  6. Tony Goins

    Count me as a Streets of Fire partisan. I think I have the soundtrack in my car right now, actually. It’s so stylized, it may count as a comic book movie.

  7. Tracer Bullet

    I like to believe they wrote “sledgehammer fight,” then figured out how to build the rest of the movie around that.

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