Walter Hill’s Musical Streets of Fire Captures What it Feels Like to Be Young

There’s an interesting niche in cinema of beloved male auteurs typically known for their depictions of masculinity making truly bananas musicals. Scorsese directed New York New, York. Coppola gave us One From the Heart. Brian De Palma made Phantom of the Paradise. Walter Hill’s addition to this curious canon was the one that seemed most destined to be a major hit. Instead, it, like its cohorts, flopped commercially – but its brash reimagining of adolescent angst with the sheen of musical fantasy is long overdue cult movie status.

Following the success of 48 Hrs., Paramount wanted to remain in business with Walter Hill and were eager to greenlight whatever he brought to the table. Knowing he was receiving a rare opportunity, Hill brought them his idea for what he described as his teenage self’s ideal film. He wanted to create a ’50s bikers and romance story taken straight from a comic book. He craved the fantastical version of adolescent cool that seemed to dominate films like The Wild One. As he wrote in the film’s production notes, “custom cars, kissing in the rain, neon, trains in the night, high-speed pursuit, rumbles, rock stars, motorcycles, jokes in tough situations, leather jackets and questions of honor.” Streets of Fire contains all of that and more.

The “more” includes several musical numbers, all staged in-universe as rock and roll performances and with songs provided by the likes of Stevie Nicks and Jim Steinman. One of the performers is Ellen Aim (Diane Lane), lead singer of the rock band Ellen Aim and the Attackers, who has returned to her home city of Richmond for a concert. Mid-performance, she is kidnapped by the Bombers, a biker gang headed by Raven Shaddock (Willem Dafoe.) Only one person can save Ellen: her former boyfriend Tom Cody (Michael Paré), an ex-soldier with a unique set of skills.

As much as Streets feels like a ‘50s throwback, its neon-drenched world where nobody over the age of 35 seems to exist is more the stuff of its time. Hill cited John Hughes, the king of the ‘80s teen saga, as an influence and it’s evident in the character dynamics. The drama is far grander than your average high school story but it all follows the same trajectory: the football hero versus the greaser in a battle for the honor of the homecoming queen. Imagine if Grease was more hallucinogenic and the stakes far higher than not being cool enough for your friends. Certainly, it seems as much inspired by the post-Grease revival of ‘50s aesthetics as it does the decade itself. Dafoe’s Brando-esque biker gear is offset by a quiff that is more Flock of Seagulls than Elvis. The idea of the past cannot help but be more enticing than the real thing.

Much like another Walter Hill movie, The Warriors, this is a story of almost maniacally heightened teen disputes that spill onto the streets of a city where the mundanities of reality seem optional. Every street is rain-soaked and reflecting neon lights, with daylight seemingly a foreign concept. The youths are in charge, far more so than any ineffectual and corrupt police officer. Territorial disputes dominate the city, gangs battling one another on motorbikes and settling matters with sledgehammer fights. It’s primal yet slick, all leather and blood and guitar solos. In the era of MTV at its most culturally potent, it’s no coincidence that Streets of Fire feels like an extended music video crossed with a classic film noir. Here, style is substance.

The flaws of Streets of Fire are unfortunately clear, especially to its most ardent fans. The middle lags compared to the thrilling opening and ending, and Michael Paré is too gloomy and charisma-free to be a James Dean-esque hero (a matter made worse by his total lack of chemistry with Diane Lane). You end up rooting for the greasers, if only because Willem Dafoe’s impish leather boy routine conveys the magnetism that would make him one of our finest character actors. Amy Madigan’s McCoy, a tough mechanic who Tom meets in a bar, is maybe the era’s great butch lesbian. Let her save the day instead! Even Ellen’s yuppie d-bag manager seems more appealing, thanks to an against-type Rick Moranis. Had Streets of Fire been successful, Hill had plans for more films following Tom Cody as a lone adventurer of sorts, but staying in this city with Ellen and friends would have been far preferable.

But, in the end, it’s less about the good guy saving the day than the sheer heart-pounding propulsive thrill of taking to the stage and knowing that the world is your oyster. The closing song is titled “Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young,” a peak Steinman rock number that evokes everything the title suggests. Good conquers evil, rock and roll lives on, and the future belongs to this generation. It’s the melding of the creation of the teenager in the ‘50s and the domination of the youth market in ‘80s pop culture. This is the future of the past, and it endures across the decades.

“Streets of Fire” is available for digital rental or purchase, or on 4K UHD Blu-ray from Shout! Factory.

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