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Streets of Fire Is the Movie Jim Steinman Was Always Writing For

Photo: Universal Pictures

Legendary songwriter Jim Steinman, who passed away last week at the age of 73, wrote music meant to be performed in all caps. This is not to diminish the dynamism and range present in his oeuvre of soaring anthems so much as to say that a Steinman track starts in caps lock and usually builds to CAPS LOCK BOLD, ITALIC, UNDERLINED, or ALL THREE. Steinman never traded in subtlety, instead opting for opulent maximalism, often invoking imagery of werewolves riding motorcycles, vampire orgies, or smooching the ghost of your ex who was also a motorcycle-riding werewolf. His discography is full of collaborations with massive names like Celine Dion, Bonnie Tyler, and his longtime musical partner (and the alleged subject of iconic Steinman track “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now”) Meat Loaf. There’s a jukebox musical of his works and a number of film soundtrack contributions.

Buried among the flashy names and accolades lie two songs from a largely forgotten 1984 Walter Hill film. The songs are performed under the name Fire, Inc. despite no such band ever technically existing. These two songs, “Nowhere Fast” and “Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young,” respectively open and close the film Streets of Fire and stand as one of the great meetings of music and film you’re likely to find.

If you’ve never seen Streets of Fire, the first thing you must understand is that there’s nothing like it. Despite featuring the convergence of a multitude of generational talent (the film’s stars include Willem Dafoe, Bill Paxton, Rick Moranis, Amy Madigan, and Diane Lane, with Jimmy Iovine as the soundtrack’s primary producer) it was a box-office bomb; its legacy today is very much that of a cult film. By his own account, Hill made the film in an attempt to create what his teenage self would have considered a perfect movie — something with “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.”

The result defies genre to the extent that it’s impossible to imagine it having become a conventional box-office hit as its producers expected. It’s too action-heavy to be a traditional musical but contains too many musical performances to appeal to testosterone-thirsty action fans. Hill utilizes the same sense of ethereal otherworldliness he so deftly employs in his other (more popular) cult classic, 1979’s The Warriors in crafting the fictional city of Richmond in Streets of Fire. Both films take place in worlds that aren’t quite science-fiction or fantasy, but if reality is center, they exist to the left of it. Richmond is full of ’80s rock and roll by way of ’50s Americana with a dash of post-Vietnam ’70s — and not an adult in sight (Hill doesn’t include anybody over the age of 30 onscreen, even in positions of authority). This all adds up to what the film’s tagline aptly describes as “A Rock and Roll Fable,” a story of a ragtag team of heroes setting out to rescue pop superstar Ellen Aim (Lane) from the villainous Raven Shaddock (Dafoe, utterly magnetic), leader of the Bombers biker gang.

Steinman’s songs provide the backbone to the film’s fast-paced opening and its anthemic finale. The film’s introductory setpiece is edited to the kinetic “Nowhere Fast,” a ripper in four/four time that Ellen plays as the opener at her triumphant hometown gig. Steinman’s lyrics provide a mission statement of sorts for a cinematic world ruled by the young. “You’ve got so many dreams and you don’t know where to put ’em,” Ellen sings, “So you’d better turn a few of ’em loose.” Steinman’s lyrics hone in on fear of stagnancy, the idea that it’s fine to be directionless as long as you aren’t boring. “There’s nothing wrong with going nowhere, baby — but we should be going nowhere fast.”

Hill uses the song’s tempo to set the film’s breakneck momentum. He doesn’t use cheap tricks like setting cuts to the exact rhythm of the track but he taps into its fast pace with a flurrious montage of shots depicting night falling on the city of Richmond as its denizens gather for Ellen’s big gig. It sets the tone for the sort of world in which a city shuts down early for a rock and roll show. “Nowhere Fast” was later covered by Meat Loaf for his 1984 album Bad Attitude, and while you can’t go wrong with a Meat Loaf–Steinman track it definitely hits different coming from an artist who was pushing 40 when he recorded it.

Originally the film was going to close with Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Fire,” but when the producers realized they wouldn’t have the rights secured in time they asked Steinman to write something for the ending. In two days he turned in “Tonight Is What it Means to Be Young,” a song so perfectly suited to the film that producer Joel Silver commissioned a million-dollar reshoot so that the film could close on Ellen performing it. It’s a million bucks well spent. The ending to Streets of Fire stands as the best filmmaking of Walter Hill’s career, and the song is Steinman at his apex.

At a certain point it’s hard to articulate why this is. Steinman and Hill are trading in such broad, sweeping emotion here that talking about how it is shot, edited, and performed feels like a moot point. Perhaps it will suffice to say that Hill’s eye and Steinman’s ear are, for roughly seven minutes, communicating from the same soul.

Full disclosure, I could be projecting here — Streets of Fire is one of my favorite movies. A favorite band of mine once sang of meeting someone “between the wax and the needle in the words of my favorite song.” I would say that’s where the film’s triumphant finale takes me. It puts to song and screen something deep in me I don’t have words for. I simply know it when I feel it, and when Tom Cody walks out the theater door because he knows if he stays a second longer he won’t have the courage to walk away from Ellen again, I feel it. Streets of Fire is very much a cult film, which is to say that it will not work for everyone. But if you are one of the people it was made for, those seven minutes will break your heart and, moments later, stitch it back together.

 “It’s only a dream, and tonight is for real, 

You’ll never know what it means but you’ll know how it feels.”

Streets of Fire is, in a sense, the film Steinman was always writing for. Hill has said his intent was to create a comic book movie that wasn’t actually based on a comic but Streets of Fire feels more like watching music, a song’s essence committed to cellulose. What it may lack in narrative it makes up for in a fierce clarity of theme and identity. Like Steinman’s songwriting, it’s all heart in all caps — painfully sincere and unapologetic for that.

An earlier version of this story stated that Streets of Fire was Diane Lane’s feature film debut. Her debut was George Roy Hill’s A Little Romance.

How Streets of Fire Translates Jim Steinman’s Music to Film