Release Date(s)1984 (March 14, 2023)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures (Shout Select/Shout! Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A
- Overall Grade: A+
Walter Hill’s dazzling Streets of Fire is the textbook definition of a cult movie: it was a box office disappointment that stubbornly refused to die on the ash heap of history, rising like a phoenix out of those ashes to become the stuff of cult legend instead. Audiences stayed away when it was originally released in 1984 because they just couldn’t understand what it was, and to be fair, Universal Studios struggled to figure out how to sell it to them. Some gorgeous woodcut-styled posters aside, it was billed as “A rock & roll fable,” but that’s not exactly a satisfying way to explain the magic that’s waiting for anyone who sits down to watch Streets of Fire. Of course, it’s really more of an odyssey than a fable, but calling it “A rock & roll odyssey” wouldn’t really have helped, either. Hill muddied the waters even further with a quote that was used on some of the teaser posters:
“Streets of Fire is, by design, comic book in orientation, mock-epic in structure, movie-heroic in acting style, operatic in visual style and cowboy-cliché in dialogue. In short: a rock ‘n’ roll adventure where the Leader of the Pack steals the Queen of the Hop and Soldier Boy comes home to do something about it.”
Setting aside the grandiloquence of that description for a moment, it does at least provide a précis of the main narrative arc in the script by Hill and co-writer Larry Gross. Fleshing that out a bit, Tom Cody (Michael Paré) returns from an unnamed war to visit his sister Reva (Deborah Van Valkenburgh), only to find that his ex-girlfriend, singer Ellen Aim (Diane Lane), has been kidnapped by Raven Shaddock (Willem Dafoe), the leader of a local biker gang called The Bombers. Ellen’s manager Billy Fish (Rick Moranis) hires Cody to get her back, and with the help of fellow veteran McCoy (Amy Madigan), Cody does just that. Along the way, he ends up inadvertently picking up a groupie (Elizabeth Daily) and a doo-wop group called The Sorels (Stoney Jackson, Grand L. Bush, Robert Townsend, and Mykelti Williamson). Yet while Cody might want to rekindle his relationship with Ellen, he’s just not the kind of guy to hold anyone’s guitars. Streets of Fire’s impressive supporting cast also includes Bill Paxton, Lee Ving, Richard Lawson, Rick Rossovich, Ed Begley Jr., Lynne Thigpen, and dancer Marine Jahan (who had previously doubled for Jennifer Beals in Flashdance).
The problem is, not one word of that summary matters in the slightest. The story isn’t the real selling point for Streets of Fire anyway, so it was never something that was going to attract audiences in the first place. The reason why the film was essentially unmarketable is that the story in the film isn’t the story of the film. Instead, the film itself is the story. The only way to understand Streets of Fire is to watch it. That’s because in many ways, Streets of Fire is the ultimate triumph of style over substance, but not because the one merely transcends the other. Instead, the style is the substance—the two are fused into an inseparable whole. Jean-Luc Godard once told an interviewer for the CBC, “To me, there is not much difference between content and form. I mean, you can reach content through forms, and you can reach forms through content... form has a content like an envelope has a letter. Without the envelope, you can never send the letter.” Streets of Fire is the transcendent expression of Godard’s principle—the envelope and the letter have become one, and it’s no longer possible to distinguish between the two. There is no story to Streets of Fire without the visual and aural means that Hill used to deliver it. No one individual part can be extracted from the glorious whole that he created.
One of the biggest keys to that creation is the fact that Hill decided to set the film in an alternate reality, shot primarily on standing sets at Universal Studios. It’s a world of the Eighties where the Fifties never really ended, filled with classic cars like a 1951 Mercury convertible, a 1946 Pontiac Torpedo, and a 1951 “Bullet Nose” Studebaker. Yet not all of the vehicles are stock, which gives things an otherworldly feel. The rest of the production design, set decoration, and costuming follows suit, turning the Eighties into almost a steampunk version of the Fifties. It’s a retro future as it might have been imagined by the characters themselves—and significantly, everyone is in their twenties or thirties, even the authority figures. In the world of Streets of Fire, the youth run wild, and that’s why the entire community is happy to shut down completely when Ellen Aim returns to her hometown to perform. And oh, what performances that unfold in the fantasy world that Hill and his collaborators devised.
Streets of Fire has an energy quite unlike any other film of its type, and that’s partly due to the fact that the rhythms of the editing are often in perfect sync with the rhythms of the music. That’s something of an unspoken taboo that most filmmakers tend to shy away from, even when making actual musicals. Steven Spielberg has a consummate command of camerawork and editing, and yet he still generally avoided that approach in his remake of West Side Story. That’s one reason why his musical numbers lack the power of the original, where Jerome Robbins and editor Thomas Stanford openly cut their dance numbers to match the rhythms of Leonard Bernstein’s music. In the case of Streets of Fire, the vast quantity of footage that Hill shot required a team of editors that included Jim Coblentz, Freeman Davies, Michael Ripps, and Michael Tronick, yet all of them worked toward the same goal of keeping everything in sync. Streets of Fire has been accused of being empty MTV flash, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The fact that the cutting is in sync with the songs and the score provides a sense of forward momentum that most music videos can’t match, and even the action scenes benefit from that same style. Just watch the memorable butterfly knife scene, or the sledgehammer duel at the end, to see how editing can become a form of music of its own. Guillermo del Toro once distinguished between eye candy and what he called “eye protein,” but by that metric, Streets of Fire is the full meal deal.
Of course, the editing wouldn’t have supported the music if the music didn’t support the editing, and fortunately, the music in Streets of Fire is wonderful indeed. Hill’s original plan was to use real Fifties tunes, but Universal put the kibosh on that due to concerns over issues with licensing, and it’s one case where studio interference ended up improving the final product. (It was also quite prescient on their part, as the rise of home video and streaming would have turned retaining those rights into a real headache.) Hill ended up splitting the music in the film between new songs primarily produced by Jimmy Iovine and Jim Steinmann, and a background score provided by the legendary Ry Cooder. Cooder had already worked with Hill on The Long Riders and Southern Comfort, but that was still just the beginning of a beautiful friendship that would extend for seven more films after Streets of Fire. Cooder performed some blistering electric slide guitar work that’s amazingly propulsive, including one ominous riff so good that Cooder would end up reusing it later for the title music in Hill’s Trespass. His music provides the lifeblood that gives Streets of Fire its unmatched vitality (and ironically enough, much of it was based on Cooder’s rejected score for the Burt Reynolds bomb Stroker Ace).
Still, it’s the songs that are the beating heart of the film. While the real-world group The Blasters makes an appearance as the band at Raven’s club Torchie’s, the rest of the songs were performed by in-house studio musicians, with the actors lip-syncing to the vocals. The lead singing voice for The Sorels was Winston Ford, although confusingly enough, songwriter Dan Hartman would end up performing the vocals for the soundtrack album and the single that would go on to become the only top ten hit from the film. (That’s not the only variance on the soundtrack album, either.) Laurie Sargent and Holly Sherwood provided the singing voice for Diane Lane, sometimes separately, sometimes together, especially as a group named Fire, Inc. that was put together just for the film. Their two songs, Nowhere Fast and Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young are the real heart and soul of Streets of Fire.
Both songs provide the bookends for Streets of Fire, with the opener Nowhere Fast setting the stage for what’s to follow, and the closer Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young summarizing everything up at the end. They’re the only two “live” performances in the film by Ellen Aim and her band The Attackers, staged, shot, and edited like nothing else that’s been seen before or since. There have been plenty of classic concert films over the decades, but none of them have the transcendent energy exhibited by just these two numbers alone, which is impressive considering that they take place in a fictional context. There’s no better fusion of performance, cinematography, editing, and music to be had anywhere else, and the best part is that they really do express the romantic core of Hill’s rock & roll fable:
“I've got a dream when the darkness is over
We'll be lyin' in the rings of the sun
But it's only a dream and tonight is for real
You'll never know what it means
But you'll know how it feels
It's gonna be over (over)
Before you know it's begun
It's all we really got tonight
Stop your cryin' hold on (tonight)
Before you know it it's gone (tonight)
Tonight is what it means to be young
Let the revels begin
Let the fire be started
We're dancing for the restless and the broken-hearted
Let the revels begin
Let the fire be started
We're dancing for the desperate and the broken-hearted
Say a prayer in the darkness for the magic to come
'Cause no matter what it seems
Tonight is what it means to be young”
Cinematographer Andrew Laszlo shot Streets of Fire on 35 mm film using Panavision Panaflex cameras with spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. (While there were a handful of 70mm blowup prints in circulation in 1984, those were pillarboxed to maintain the 1.85:1 aspect ratio.) Previous home video versions of Streets of Fire have relied on 2K scans of an interpositive, but for the first time, the original camera negative has now been scanned at 4K resolution, cleaned up, and graded in High Dynamic Range for both Dolby Vision and HDR10. It’s worth noting that not all of those 2K scans were created equal, with Shout! Factory’s 2017 Collector’s Edition Blu-ray having a noticeably different appearance than the imports from Second Sight, Koch Media, and others. The Shout! version was arguably the best of all of them, but deciding which one was definitive could still be considered a matter of taste.
Thankfully, this new 4K presentation puts any lingering doubts into the rearview mirror of Cody’s Mercury convertible. The level of fine detail is noticeably improved compared to the 2K scans, and while the differences between the UHD and the remastered Blu-ray are much more subtle, there’s still a touch more detail to the textures. It's visible in the fine fuzz on Billy Fish’s (wool?) suit, and the herringbone pattern on McCoy’s jacket is also slightly clearer. The grain is tighter and significantly more refined than it was when the IP was the source element, and that helps to improve the apparent level of detail as well. The opening titles and any other opticals (such as the stylized wipes) would still have been sourced from an IP, so they’re softer, with less refined grain, but they do help to show off the improvements in the footage from the negative scan. Aside from a few stray speckles here and there, everything is much cleaner now, and there’s no other damage of note.
The new master doesn’t waste any time showing off the benefits of HDR, either, with the opening shot of neon reflections in the wetted-down streets glistening like it never has before. The contrast range has definitely been improved, with deep blacks that don’t sacrifice detail, unless there wasn’t any there to begin with. There are times when the contrast does seem to run a little hot, but that’s still faithful to the original look—the red lights on stage during Nowhere Fast are really intense in this version, obscuring the detail in Ellen’s face, but they’ve always done that on previous versions as well. The overall color balance isn’t necessarily more saturated, but the highlights like that certainly are. Ellen’s infamous red dress for Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young is really striking here, and the sparkles on it stand out much more clearly. This is a significant upgrade over any and all previous version.
Audio is offered in a new English Dolby Atmos mix, the original 70 mm 6-track mag mix encoded as 4.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, and the original four-channel Dolby Stereo mix matrix encoded as 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. (Optional English SDH subtitles are also provided.) The Atmos mix doesn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel, but it does add channel separation that wasn’t present before, and it also positions sounds more precisely in space. The overhead channels don’t get much of a workout, aside from occasional moments like when an elevated train crosses the ceiling, but the sounds of the other passing vehicles now pan into the left or right surround channels, as appropriate. The music definitely benefits from the object-based mix, with noticeable improvements in separation and positioning. For example, when Michael Paré’s name appears during the opening credits and the percussion takes over for a moment, the individual drums are better defined, with greater spread. Surprisingly enough, the remix is sometimes more restrained than the older mixes, with a few sound effects dialed down a bit, like when Cody and Reva are talking outside of her apartment near the beginning of the film. The ambient surround effects for that scene are more prominent on the 4.1 and 2.0 mixes, while they’re subtler in Atmos. It’s one case where greater refinement might not be to all tastes, but the good news is that all possible options are included, so the choice is yours. (Please note that the Atmos version is mastered at a lower level than the other two, so adjust the volume level accordingly when trying to compare them.)
Shout! Factory’s 4K Ultra HD release of Streets of Fire is a three-disc set that includes a Blu-ray with a 1080p copy of the film, as well as a second Blu-ray with all of the extras. (There are no extras on the UHD or the first Blu-ray.) Unlike their 2017 Collector’s Edition Blu-ray, this version doesn’t include the slipcover with new artwork, and the insert isn’t reversible, either. The Blu-ray for the film does offer the newly remastered transfer as well as the new Dolby Atmos audio mix, so it’s not just a repressing, but the extras Blu-ray appears to be the exact same disc as the one from the Collector’s Edition, just with a different label on the surface. The following extras are included:
- Shotguns and Six-Strings: The Making of a Rock & Roll Fable (HD – 100:23)
- Rumble on the Lot: Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire Revisited (HD – 82:29)
- Vintage Featurettes (Upscaled SD – 10:43, 5 in all)
- Music Videos (Upscaled SD – 8:39 + 5:52, 3 in all)
- Theatrical Trailer (HD – 2:25)
- On-Air Promos (Upscaled SD – 13:12)
- Still Gallery (HD – 10:22)
Shotguns and Six-Strings is a feature-length documentary on the making of Streets of Fire that was produced and directed by Daniel Griffith at Ballyhoo Motion Pictures for the 2017 Shout! Factory Blu-ray. It mixes film clips, archival footage, and new interviews with Larry Gross, Walter Hill, producer Lawrence Gordon, editor Freeman Davies, costume designer Marilyn Vance, art director James Allen, Michael Paré, Deborah Van Valkenburgh, Richard Lawson, Lee Ving, Elizabeth Daily, and more. Everything is covered from the film’s inception to release and beyond, including the development of the story, casting, the production design, costuming, cinematography, stunt work, the music, reshoots, the failed theatrical release, and the eventual cult success. They all have plenty of interesting stories to tell about the production, like Paré admitting that he didn’t know how to drive either a motorcycle or a stick shift, so he had to scramble to learn on set before his driving scenes. There’s also an extended discussion about how the ending was reshot after they had already filmed everything set to Bruce Springsteen’s Streets of Fire, but couldn’t nail down the rights to the song. (That’s why Diane Lane is wearing an obvious wig during Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young, since she’d already cut her hair for her next film.) Shotguns and Six-Strings is a great introduction to the world of Streets of Fire for the uninitiated, but it’s also a nice return to that world for die-hard fans.
Rumble on the Lot is yet another feature-length documentary on the making of Streets of Fire, this time originally produced and directed by Robert Fischer for the 2013 Region B Blu-ray from Second Sight. (It’s been offered on multiple releases since then, including the 2017 Shout! Factory set.) While it relies a bit more heavily on archival footage than Shotguns and Six-Strings, it does feature substantial new interviews with Walter Hill, Michael Paré, and art director James Allen. The real prize is that it also features new interview footage with Amy Madigan, who didn’t participate in the later Ballyhoo documentary, as well as a greater quantity of new interview footage with Hill. Rumble on the Lot covers much of the same basic material as Shotguns and Six Strings, but with a lot of different nuances along the way. For example, Hill repeats his usual stories about the comic book influence on Streets of Fire, but he adds here that Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was also a touchstone for him, in terms of the way that it created an alternate reality for its characters to inhabit. Paré initially makes the interesting comment that the script read like a classic Hollywood western with motorcycles instead of horses, which was good for him, as he was a lot better on a motorcycle than he was on a horse. (Given his later admission that he couldn’t actually ride a motorcycle until he got on set, it’s probably a good thing for the sake of Hollywood horses that the movie wasn’t actually a western.) It might seem like there would be too much repetition by including two different documentaries about the making of Streets of Fire in the one set, but Rumble on the Lot offers plenty to set it apart from Shotguns and Six Strings.
The Vintage Featurettes include Rock & Roll Fable, Exaggerated Realism, Choreographing the Crowd, Creating the Costumes, and From the Ground Up. They include some behind-the-scenes footage, clips from the film, and interviews with members of the cast and crew including Walter Hill, Jimmy Iovine, Andrew Laszlo, assistant director David Sosna, costume designer Marilyn Vance, production designer John Vallone, Michael Paré, and a few others. Some of this footage was repurposed for the preceding documentaries, but there’s also material here that wasn’t included elsewhere.
The Music Videos include two different songs from the Streets of Fire soundtrack: Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young by Fire, Inc., and I Can Dream about You by Dan Hartman, both of them using footage from the film rather than clips of the artists. While it’s not immediately obvious, there’s actually a second extended version of Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young encoded separately as a bonus—the first two videos play together, then it automatically skips to another section featuring the third video (that’s why the running times are listed separately in the bullet points above). Note that the music video for Fire, Inc.’s Nowhere Fast from Koch’s Region B Blu-ray hasn't been included here, nor anywhere else for that matter.
The On-Air Promos are brief EPK featurettes designed to be used for television broadcasts promoting Streets of Fire. There’s behind-the-scenes footage here, as well as on-set interviews with Diane Lane, Michael Paré, and Walter Hill. It’s all derived from the same material as the Vintage Featurettes (as well as the newer documentaries), so they’re included here more for archival purposes than anything else.
Finally, the Still Gallery features a wealth of great promotional photographs, production artwork, posters, pressbook materials, and lobby cards. It’s all set to Bomber Bash and other classic Ry Cooder tracks from Streets of Fire, most of them extracted from the music and sound effects stems from the film. That’s because Bomber Bash is the only track from the score that’s ever been released separately, as a part of the 1995 compilation Music by Ry Cooder. The single greatest tragedy of Streets of Fire isn’t the fact that it failed to find an audience in 1984; instead, it’s the fact there’s never been a Ry Cooder soundtrack album, not even as an EP. One of Cooder’s background songs made it onto the official soundtrack album, but none of his score has ever appeared anywhere except that for one track on Music by Ry Cooder. Time may have been kind to Streets of Fire, but it hasn’t been kind to Ry Cooder’s wondrous work on the film.
Of course, time hasn’t been kind to most of us, but Streets of Fire abides. It’s certainly been an integral part of my own life ever since 1984. I worked at a small-town video store back in the late Eighties, and we had a big-screen television up front that had a halfway decent sound system in it. One of the few videotapes that every employee could agree about for in-store play was Streets of Fire. We played it multiple times a week, and sometimes even multiple times a day, with the sound cranked up the whole time. We watched it many, many hundreds of times over the course of my tenure there. The only problem was that it was sometimes difficult to finish, since it inevitably attracted attention from our customers. They would stand there riveted during key sequences in the film, like the butterfly knife scene or the sledgehammer duel, and they often asked if we had another copy of it. We didn’t, so we’d have to pull the tape out to let them rent it, and then wait breathlessly until it came back the next day. I’d like to think that video store employees like us were an integral part of turning this box office bomb into the cult classic that it is today.
Fast forward to 2017 when the original Shout! Factory Blu-ray came out, and I had just finished construction on a new home theatre room at the house that my wife and I had recently purchased. The timing couldn’t possibly have been more perfect. I managed to track down three of the people who worked with me at the Video Vault, oh so many decades earlier, and the first official screening at the new Casa Bjork Home Theatre was a private showing of Streets of Fire for the old gang—proving conclusively that Streets of Fire does indeed abide. Here’s to my old teammates Jean, Dennis, and Denise, as well as to every single other passionate fan across the globe who has been preaching the gospel of Streets of Fire to anyone who will listen (and to quite a few people who probably didn’t want to listen as well). Six years after releasing what was arguably the ultimate Blu-ray version of this cult classic, Shout! Factory has now released the definitive Streets of Fire, full stop. This is the one set to rule them all. Buy it with no hesitation if you’re a fan, but even if you’re not one, buy it anyway. You’ll thank all of us later.
- Stephen Bjork