With 1984’s Streets Of Fire Walter Hill promised much. Billed as “A Rock & Roll Fable” the film had ambitions of the blockbuster leaning, with the director’s stock at an all-time high following major successes with the likes of 48 Hours, and his work in a production capacity on Alien and Aliens. In Streets Of Fire Hill sought to replicate the success of the studio Summer tentpole, with an industry in the wake of Star Wars keen to see further works of that ilk produced. The resulting film is a work of a very specific time, with very special results. Combining the basic of structure of George Lucas’ space opera (kidnapped girl seeks rescue) with the hyper-stylised trends of the time, Streets Of Fire is at once a time capsule of the era, and a work which resonates hugely effectively almost thirty years on.
MTV, the major game-changer for aesthetic development during the Reagan-era, made it’s bow just three years prior to Streets Of Fire reaching screens. Hill’s film, and its freeze frame, crash cuts and scratch wipes takes the visual coda of the MTV style guide and attaches it to the Summer blockbuster. Streets Of Fire came 12 months after Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish, and two years on from that director’s One From The Heart, and both of which are films to which Hill’s owes some debt, be it in the almost-exclusive reliance upon a lavish, constructed set, or in their representation of their respective protagonists. Streets Of Fire cannot help but feel like a film that Coppola would have made at the time, due to the hyper-stylised nature of the project, which fit in completely with the work that came out of Zoetrope Studios a couple of years earlier.
As with One From The Heart it is the artificial set at the centre of Streets Of Fire that serves as it’s most awe-inspiring achievement. One of the biggest of it’s type ever produced, the set provokes the most unusual feeling and atmosphere. The act of shooting on location was one of the great developments of the New Hollywood, which served initially to move the movie producers out on to the streets and away from the backlot, and under which such realism-strewn classics as Taxi Driver and The Last Picture Show were produced. Here it is all but rejected, leading to a noticeably theatrical tone for much of the picture. While a real street features the kind of natural prop of the everyday that is so common that it becomes almost subliminal; stray animals, unplanned traffic, etc, the streets here are eerily quiet, the meticulously stylised nature of the film achieved by pitch perfect conducting. This extends further, to the cars, trucks and busses that fill the streets of fire, and to set details such as a diner which blends the contemporary time of the films production, the 1980s with a number of earlier periods. Motorbikes explode at the merest touch, with the intentionally heightened and theatrical tone ultimately informing the characterisation too: every character is a type, be it the rugged hero, the damsel in distress, the sleazy impresario or the sidekick. Hill again looks to Star Wars, with that franchise’s school of character types mined for all its worth.
It’s a wonderfully quirky picture. The film features a fascinating early performance from Willem Dafoe, who spends much of the limited amount of time he’s on a screen in what appears to be a pair of PVC overalls, while a couple of the songs on the film’s soundtrack come courtesy of the unmistakeable Jim Steinman, the man who somehow channeled both Springsteen and Broadway to memorable effect with his work with Meatloaf. And let’s make no bones about it, Streets Of Fire is very much a musical: it plays like an extended music video, even going as far as to have it’s performers communicating directly with the camera in the bits featuring diegetic music. There’s even an interlude at the half way point, in which the whole film seems to pause while a music video plays out on-screen and around the films protagonists.
Somehow combining the cinemas of both Anthony Mann and Michael Mann, Streets Of Fire riffs on the notion of an American Mythology, re-positioning the Western very firmly within the 1980s, albeit one skewed through the prism of the 1940s, in turn essentially inventing a new form of Neo-Noir. Hill’s would return to this subversion of the noir with Johnny Handsome at the close of the 1980’s, coincidentally enough in the same year that Tim Burton’s Batman hit theatres, with that superhero film employing a similar aesthetic coda to the earlier Hill film. The influence of Streets Of Fire can most heavily be felt in Japan, where the film proved to be an unlikely success story. From video-games to anime, Hill’s movie inspired a whole wave of visual entertainment in the Far East, and it’s not difficult to see why, given just how impressive a vision it is.