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In Another Time, It Found Its Place: Revisiting Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire

By  · Published on December 16th, 2016

Time for this Rock n Roll fable to come out of the blue shadows.

It’s hard to accurately underline the reasons that certain films fail to connect with audiences at the time of their release. But it is almost assuredly a question of “reasons” and not a matter of a singular cause. It can be anything from the political climate of the time, the spate of films released against that movie, or perhaps even perceptions of that filmmaker and the expectations those perceptions foster.

Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire, when stacked against the other entries in his canon, is perhaps the least Walter Hill-esque film. However, when one catalogs each element that appears on screen, coupled with comments Hill made in interviews about the making of the movie, Streets of Fire is possibly his most intensely personal work. It is, by Hill’s own estimation, a pastiche of all of the things he loved the most when he was fourteen years old. Here at the Junkfood Cinema podcast, we can appreciate that approach.

Sadly, directors’ most personal films are often the ones most ignored, maligned, or outright hated by fans.

We can understand what prompted the head-scratching by folks leaving the theater in 1984. Streets of Fire is a manically constructed, wildly stylized, musically pulsing fable set in the 1950s of an alternate human timeline. It’s The Warriors meets The Searchers. It’s post-apocalyptic, but a post-apocalypse spawned from a very specific cataclysm that fused the MTV generation with their parents who happened to be watching Happy Days at the time of the blast. The best part of this absurd recipe? The final product truly works.

Streets of Fire is the epitome of something we’ve talked about many times on this podcast, that the cinema of the 1980s fetishized the 1950s in much the same way that current cinema now fetishizes the 1980s. This was Walter Hill crafting the ultimate drive-in movie but peppering in so much talent in front of the camera and on the soundtrack that the legitimacy of the product could not be questioned. Sure, the editing at the opening of the film is a series of chaotic celluloid rips, but that is as intentional as every captivating performance choice made by Willem DaFoe and Diane Lane; who shine as the film’s villain and kidnapped rock goddess respectively.

And yes, it is a fable. This isn’t merely a clever trapping placed by the opening credits, but in fact a warning to submit to the logic of Streets of Fire. It is said, in the preamble, to be set “in another time, in another place,” not terribly dissimilar from another famous invitation to suspend disbelief: “a long time ago in a galaxy far far away.” The absorption of that grain of salt allows the audience to careen through the madcap story (one which utilizes scores of classic themes from film and literature) as well as give over to one of cinema’s very best soundtracks.

The weirdness of Streets of Fire is not an obstacle in its path, but in fact is the path itself. We are not in the actual 1950s, nor are we in the actual 1980s, but instead on some distant planet where pop culture is the only delineation of chronology. The movie has its own lingo and engages in expert world-building that explains why, had it been successful in its first outing, Streets of Fire would have been a trilogy. The film also features a breathless energy, an engaging visual signature, and a utilization of vocal performance as signposts along the road that is usually reserved for traditional musicals, which Streets of Fire staunchly is not.

In the end, Streets of Fire did fail to connect with audiences upon initial release, but has in the last few years begun to be embraced as a singularly unique film, and the sometimes dubious distinction of cult classic has been more than earned. In order to delve deeper into the appeal, this week’s episode of Junkfood Cinema invites Alamo Drafthouse programmer Greg MacLennan as a special guest!

As a special treat, anyone who backs JFC on Patreon will have access to a weekly bonus episodes covering an additional cult movie, a new movie in theaters, or a mailbag episode devoted to your submitted questions! Have a couple bucks to throw in the hat, we’ll reward you!

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.