SoundTreks | Streets of Fire
1984 was a banner movie year for people of my generation. Ask anyone who was a child at the time, and they will tell you tales of the blockbuster wonderment in 1984. Released that year: Ghostbusters, Gremlins, The Terminator, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Karate Kid, The NeverEnding Story, Purple Rain, Police Academy, Beverly Hills Cop, This is Spinal Tap, and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension. Given the amount of cultural clout all of these films still possess in the contemporary pop discourse, one might be led to assume that my entire generation hinged exclusively on the feature films released in 1984.
So it is with a wistful pang that I acknowledge the relative obscurity of Walter Hill’s 1984 contribution Streets of Fire, a film just as good as any on that list – and better than many of them. Streets of Fire is rarely mentioned in discussions of ’80s cinema, which seems to me to be something of an oversight.
For those of you unfamiliar with the film (and I imagine that may be many of you), Streets of Fire is a rock musical odyssey set in Chicago about a heroic street tough (Michael Paré) who must rescue his kidnapped rock star ex-girlfriend (Diane Lane) from an evil biker gang led by Willem Dafoe. Rick Moranis, Lee Ving, and Bill Paxton also have small roles.
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Streets of Fire is intensely loved by a very small contingent of filmgoers (including yours truly), but largely unrecognized by the public at large. The film was, after all, a bomb upon its initial release, which tends to scare people off. Of those who do bother to wander into its path, many find it campy and over-the-top. Most people simply don’t find it at all. The only notably popular thing to come out of Streets of Fire was its hit soundtrack record which introduced the world to “I Can Dream About You.”
But perhaps the movie – and its excellent soundtrack record – have more to offer the world at large. SoundTreks is here to examine this record, see if it’s good, and perhaps examine if Streets of Fire is underrated, or rated appropriately. Let us trek down the bombastic road of super-rock, friends.
Track 1. “Nowhere Fast” – Fire Inc.
Fire Inc. is the imaginary band from within the movie, fronted by Diane Lane’s character, but vocalized by Laurie Sargent and Holly Sherwood. Since Streets of Fire takes place in a somewhat heightened comic book universe, wherein the 1980s are kind of smashed together with a cartoon version of the 1950s, it makes sense that the music should be loud and forthright and bombastic.
And no one – no one – is more bombastic than songwriter Jim Steinman, who wrote the Fire Inc. songs for the movie. Steinman is, for those who many not know him, the mastermind behind most of Meat Loaf’s songs, and the writer of “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Steinman’s songs are super-long, operatic, and contain a lot of words. The zeal of Steinman’s songwriting can leave a lot of listeners cold – there’s something top-heavy and obnoxious about that level of earnest musical gigantism.
“Nowhere Fast” is a foghorn of a song, announcing the energy of the movie in a big way. I’m usually ambivalent toward Steinman – I admire the largesse while I am put off by it – but as a big intro to a heightened world, this one makes sense.
Track 2. “Sorcerer” – Marilyn Martin
And it looks like bombastic earnestness is going to be the defining sound of this album. “Sorcerer” is not as noisy as the opening track – it’s breathy and emotional – but it wears its heart on its sleeve. The song was written by Stevie Nicks, which may or may not be a bad thing depending on where you stand with her. Marilyn Martin sings it well enough; I like the Rachel Sweet-ish sound to her vocals. She would go on to have a bigger soundtrack-releated hit with the Phil Collins duet “Separate Lives,” heard in the also-not-often-discussed White Nights.
Track 3. “Deeper and Deeper” – The Fixx
My assumption with the Streets of Fire soundtrack is that the musicians and music supervisors wanted it to remain of the era, but also kind of timeless. That holds true for the first two tracks, and many of the proceeding ones. “Deeper and Deeper,” however, is the outlier, blasting its ’80s synth pop right in your face. The Fixx is a solidly New Wave band from England, and their “Deeper and Deeper” is a funky popfunk basement dance song of the highest order. It could – and likely has – made its way onto ’80s compilation CDs.
Track 4. “Countdown to Love” – Greg Phillinganes
This is what I meant by timeless. “Countdown to Love” may have a pretty fun Stevie Wonder-ish funk bassline, but it is, at its heart, a ’50s doo-wop song through and through. The spirit of that ’80s/’50s world can perhaps be perfectly encapsulated here. Greg Phillinganes is a star synth player in the musical world, who played on every track on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” and worked with just about every famous soul and pop musician of his era.
Track 5. “One Bad Stud” – The Blasters
Although punk rock started in the 1970s (and some of its best examples come from that era), it really too hold of the pop consciousness in the 1980s, and many associate punk with the ’80s as a result. Although if one were to trace punk – as an ethos – back to its origins, one will eventually find themselves face the mid-1950s. Despite all the doo-wop and bubblegum of the era, there are countless lost 45s somewhere in the world containing hundreds upon hundreds of quick-and-dirty rockabilly tracks laid down by – yes – punks. Rockabilly is, to me, a thrilling and vibrant genre that still exemplifies punk attitudes just as well as, say, groups like The Germs or Fear.
The Blasters came out of the New Wave scene playing hyperactive renditions of rockabilly songs, and carving a niche for themselves in the process. Every generation has a rockabilly band hiding somewhere inside. The ’90s had Brian Setzer. We currently have Imelda May (if you’ve ever actually heard of her). ’80s punks in a ’50s world? Rockabilly was unavoidable.
Track 6. “Tonight is What it Means to Be Young” – Fire Inc.
It’s seven minutes long, and has enough SONG in it to fill three whole pop records. It’s not so much a song as a relentless tidal wave of aural bombast. This is what Jim Steinman does best, my friends. To quote Mystery Science Theater 3000, he’s the man who holds you down and pummels you with music. There is an aching romance to this song, as with all of Steinman, and I find myself appreciating the hugeness of it…
…Until I start to get bruises. Then I just can’t wait for the assault to end.
Track 7. “Never Be You” – Maria McKee
This is a torch song with a country twang. Maris McKee never made it big in the U.S., but scored a hit in the U.K. in 1990. I want to skim past this one, dismissing it, but it’s hard to do with this soundtrack, so full as it is with embiggened drama.
Track 8. “I Can Dream About You” – Dan Hartman
And so we come to the big hit. “I Can Dream About You” was, in 1984, a juggernaut, getting huge amounts of radio play, and eventually hitting the charts as high as #6. In the film, it is performed by the fictional band The Sorels, and the in-movie song was voiced by one Winston Ford, but it’s the Dan Hartman version that made its way onto the soundtrack, and into our hearts.
But how is the song? It’s fine, I guess. As big-lunged ballads go, I think it may be in the top 50 percentile. It’s way better than some of Meat Loaf’s stuff, that’s for sure.
An irony at work: This was the song that came to define the movie, and its tone and mood are actually less on point than a lot of the other tracks on this record. It became so big, it kind of twisted off and managed to grow as it own entity, while Streets of Fire was left to languish. Dan Hartman went onto further successes before tragically dying of AIDS in 1994. This song is his legacy, and it stands above.
Track 9. “Hold That Snake” – Ry Cooder
We follow the hit with this fun little goof. Ry Cooder has contributed to many soundtracks, including 1984’s Paris, Texas (for my money, one of the best films of the decade). We’re back in rockabilly territory, and it’s a place I like to occupy.
Track 10. “Blue Shadows” – The Blasters
And we finish with a reprise by The Blasters. This was a wise move. We don’t want to end the record with another piece of Jim Steinman explosiveness. We want to focus on the joy, the playful punk attitudes, and the timelessness of the movie. The emotions will find themselves; style is what’s important. You want to leave the movie smiling. The heroes have won, the girl is safe, the bad guys have been vanquished, let’s have a party. I wish every soundtrack record ended with a fun one.
Which is Better? The Soundtrack or the Movie?
As someone who really likes the movie, I think the film is better. However, as an entity, the soundtrack is an independent force to be reckoned with. It’s a tough call, but I would say they’re nearly tied.
But for different reasons. The movie is an enjoyable fantasy-ish punk-ish film about venturing into a supervillain’s hideout to rescue a damsel in distress. It has a comic book appeal to its plot simplicity, and succeeds because of its style and timeless musical qualities. The record, on the other hand, succeeds for its earnestness and excellent production. True, one has to bear the brunt of some pretty heady stuff to endure the album, but Jim Steinman can be giggle-worthy, if you affect the right attitude.
But maybe that simplicity is what keeps people away. The film is not exactly well-scripted, and all it really has to run with is its style and attitude. For me, that’s enough, but for many, they may want more. Maybe that’s why the soundtrack endures while the film continues to sink into deeper crevices in the cult firmament. The soundtrack announces itself with brass, has style, and contains less of the movie’s insistent silliness; it’s easier to accept this world in musical form than it is in movie form.
Streets of Fire is worth a look, if you can find it. I’d even say it’s at least as good as Walter Hill’s other cult hit The Warriors. The record may be more readily available, however, so you’d be forgiven if you start and stop here. But a further journey may reveal a cult classic waiting to be opened again. Or shot out entirely. Really, it’s up to you.