In 1984 it seemed as if this movie didn’t succeed with anyone except me. For most viewers it was at worst inept, at best the original WTF? experience, long before WTF? was a standard abbreviation. The naïve dialogue and broad line readings, offbeat costuming, indefinite sense of time and place, and conspicuous absence of Bruce Springsteen seemed to put everyone off. But by the summer of ’84, after a decade that had produced Hard Times, The Driver, The Warriors, The Long Riders, Southern Comfort, and 48 Hrs, Walter Hill had earned the benefit of the doubt; and the willingness of fans and critics to assume he didn’t know what he was doing was baffling.
In a way, Streets of Fire was where Hill had been headed all along, combining as it did Hill’s interests in street violence, existential man in an oppressive cityscape, the archetypal stories of Greek myth, military history, rugged teams of professionals and amateurs confronting forces of chaos, and the power of primitive storytelling in the manner of not only Boetticher, Karlson, and Fuller but of Homer. “Is this a sequel to The Warriors?” some asked. After all, it recapitulated the central image of gang violence and turf warfare in a megacity; and the iconic story of a kidnapped rock star and the petulant ex-boyfriend who leads a rescue mission to save her seemed as solidly based in the Iliad as The Warriors was in Xenophon’s Anabasis.
But Streets of Fire didn’t just revisit The Warriors. It rolled into one sensible whole the themes, images, and stylistic gestures Hill had been working with since his directorial debut. When the shopkeepers and apartment dwellers of the Richmond unite to drive the Bombers out of their neighborhood, it’s an evocation of the ill-fated Northfield Raid commemorated in The Long Riders and turned on its ear in the ambivalent portrayal of the Cajuns in Southern Comfort. The omnipresence of el-trains recalls the subway of The Warriors; but getting in and out of tough spots by car in unfamiliar areas of a big town was a key motif in The Driver and 48 Hrs as well. And the resolution of mass collisions between order and chaos into a single primordial face-off between two archetypal heroes is an image to which Hill has repeatedly returned throughout his career.
What seems to have been less noticed about Walter Hill, beyond these familiar recurring motifs, is his profound interest in music. His work exemplifies a commitment to building films around music reflective of the time, the culture, the atmosphere, the people he tells his stories about. It was no accident that a radio d.j. and the songs she selected counterpointed the escape of the Warriors from Harlem back to Coney Island; or that The Long Riders turned out to be as much about the songs of the 1870s as about the James-Younger gang; or that the efforts of an ill-trained unit of National Guardsmen to escape their bayou nemeses would lead to a backwater zydeco dance in Southern Comfort. All along, Hill appeared to be reaching for a landmark fusion of visual imagery with music. And in Streets of Fire, he found it.
“A Rock & Roll Fable” he called it. And originally Springsteen’s “Streets of Fire” was to have been the film’s anthem. But the Boss backed out—reportedly because Hill’s plan was to have the song covered by a different band and voice. The title remained, and though none of the singers and songwriters involved in the final film quite had the stature of Springsteen, the feel of the film is solidly in line with blue collar rock & roll, the music of the people. Hill’s film, set in “Another Time, Another Place” that’s a lot like the post-war, still industrial New York of the 1950s (though actually shot in Chicago and Los Angeles), has a never-was, out-of-time feel to it, enabling it to freely sample the rock & roll of several different places and eras. From New Orleans to New Wave, from pumping piano boogie to smooth a capella doo wop, from savage electric rhythms to wistful romantic ballads, this is a music track that matters.
The fact that the songs fit the characters and the action is not knee-jerk cleverness, because the film is a fable about rock & roll culture, about a people who are of the music as much as the music is of the people. That’s the reason for the naïve dialogue and seemingly flat line readings: These are people whose feelings, behavior, and conversation are shaped by the music they hear. Every situation and emotion in the film is the stuff of rock & roll: tough guys, cool cars and motorbikes, falling in love, breaking up, the eternal triangle, the sense of loss, self-pity, reckless abandon, the celebration of youth and revelry.
The real hero of the film is the soundtrack, made live with rock & roll sounds of bygone eras. Even in 1984, Hill’s exemplification of rock & roll was a throwback to the days when melody and lyrics really mattered. And what lyrics! Poetic, savage, powerful, direct, bacchanalian:
I see the edge
I look, I fall
I get deeper and deeper
I don’t want no scars to show
I don’t want nobody to know
So I’ll be killin’ time in the blue shadow
No other place for me to go
No other place for dyin’ slow
So I’ll be killin’ time in the blue shadow
I’ve got a dream ’bout an angel on the beach
And the perfect waves are starting to turn
His hair is flying out in ribbons of gold
And his touch has got the power to burn
But I don’t see any angels in the city
I don’t hear any holy choirs sing
And if I can’t get an angel
I can still get a boy
And a boy’d be the next best thing
The next best thing to an angel
A boy’d be the next best thing
Let the revels begin, let the fire be started
We’re dancing for the restless and the broken-hearted
You and me we’re goin’ nowhere, baby
And we gotta get away from the past
There’s nothin’ wrong with goin’ nowhere baby
But we should be goin’ nowhere fast
And even if you don’t have anywhere to go
Your foot is on the pedal and you’re ready to roll
And your speed is all you ever need
All you ever need to know
What sustains the film most is that sense of speed. This was the early age of music videos, remember. Streets of Fire starts and ends with concerts, but in between Hill gives us the kinesis of the music video. Rhythm is the medium and the message of Streets of Fire—and what else should “A Rock & Roll Fable” be about? At a time when the most celebrated filmmakers of the age were busy reducing traditional narrative filmmaking to a succession of breathless video-game action sequences in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Hill was more interested in exploring how MTV filmmaking could offer a new way of telling a story, creating characters, building theme. Movements more choreographed than blocked, montage as backbeat, fluid tracking shots as melodic line: Streets of Fire is a Dionysian embrace of the inseparability of music and meaning. Like any piece of Dionysian art, it gives us a stark, simplified, world of mythic epic, in which the driving force is the rhythm, and the structure of relationships, not depth of character, generates the story. In this film, Hill uses his actors not as characters but as types. It’s the music that most informs the film’s energy—even its visual sense: the songs’ rhythms and lyrics seem to guide Hill’s directorial hand to such gestures as the opening shot of a neon rainbow reflected in wet streets, shadows moving urgently against backgrounds of red or blue, Willem Dafoe’s Raven in shiny black slaughterhouse overalls emerging from and receding into the fires of chaos.
Everything that’s best about the film is epitomized in a remarkable central sequence (at 47:15 on your DVD) when the film’s bickering protagonists, having abandoned a dream car in a shabby parking garage, emerge on foot, to a pulsing drumbeat, into a surreal street scene. The montage, punctuated by quick fades to black, keeps us unsure whether what we are seeing is “real” or image. As it turns out, it’s both. We’re in a Limbo between the fiery chaos of the Battery and the conventional order of the Richmond, something like a red light district, where we see easy women, smooth dancers, hard drinkers interacting in a stylized, choreographed way, intercut with a bigscreen music video of Ellen Aim (a 19-year-old Diane Lane, voiced by Laurie Sargent) singing Stevie Nicks’s “Sorceror.” A music video within a music video within a film based on music video techniques. It not only enchants us, it manages to advance the plot as well. This guy Hill knows how to make movies.
Robert C. Cumbow is the author of books on John Carpenter and Sergio Leone. Several essays he originated on 24 Lies a Second were reintroduced and archived on The House Next Door. His home base is the Seattle film blog, The Parallax View.