What It Means To Be Young

illustration by Tony Stella

The lights go down at a rock-and-roll show, and the entire venue is plunged into darkness. For the brief moment before the band takes the stage, the space fills with the excited buzz of possibility. This is the moment we’ve been waiting for. Right now. The anticipation of transcendence, shared with a community of people bound together by a belief in something meaningful.

Another time. Another place.

Those words dance across a black screen, and suddenly, we are in Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire, a 1984 film billed in the credits and in its promotional materials as “A Rock & Roll Fable.”

From its opening moments, Hill’s movie harnesses the engine that drives rock and roll, in its foot-to-the-floor speed and carefree energy. The first image after the credits is of a rain-soaked street, with the neon lights of a theater’s marquee reflected in the glimmering asphalt. Then shoes—hundreds of teenagers shoot into the frame, heading for the theater, which the camera tilts up to, in awe of the power of this communal space. This is a culture entirely populated by young people, determined to feel the pull of tomorrow in a time and place that keeps reminding them of the struggle of today. Here, the light of the future feels too obscured by the darkness of the present, as if all hope of possibility is foreclosed by the lived reality of their now. What you see is important, but even more than that, this is a movie about what you hear. Ellen Aim and The Attackers are about to take the stage. Guitars. Drums. Joy.

The film is a genre hybrid of noir, westerns, and the musical. Its characters spit tough-guy, 1950s-infused patter. Its neon-drenched sets suggest a world out of time, where America at mid-century never ended, but shot forward through history, collecting scattered bits of the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, and wearing them all with equal reverence. This is a gutter fairy tale, propelled by the transcendent power of rock and roll.

The song Ellen (Diane Lane) is playing on stage, “Nowhere Fast,” which was composed for the film, sends the crowd into a frenzy. But inside, the screaming kids don’t know that danger is approaching in the streets outside. Raven Shaddock (Willem Dafoe), leading an army of black-leather motorcycle rebels, roars into The Richmond district. A small group, with Raven at the point, enters the theater unnoticed in a backlit shot that silhouettes the bikers. Raven’s sculpted, devil-point hair is haloed in faint white glow. For a moment, when Raven stops near the stage, it seems as if he too is taken away by the power of Ellen’s rock and roll revival. Ellen sings her heart out, reaching for something greater with her voice, and offering the audience below the chance to go with her to that place where they all really want to go: somewhere else. Then, the lights on the stage rise, revealing Raven’s sinister scowl. He dives onto the stage, and chaos breaks out. In the melee, the bikers rough up the teens, Raven escapes with Ellen, and the streets outside the theater devolve into a panicked frenzy of rumbling motorcycles, screaming teens, and wailing police sirens.

Enter Tom Cody, (Michael Pare), Ellen’s ex-boyfriend and all-around tough guy who joins Ellen’s manager Billy Fish (Rick Moranis), and mechanic McCoy (Amy Madigan) to rescue Ellen from Raven’s clutches. Tom brings with him a rock and roll sound of his own, accompanied by Ry Cooder’s score, itself a tour through music history: Reva (Deborah Van Valkenburgh), Tom’s sister, types a letter to Tom, asking him to come home to the sound of a Bo Diddley-inspired fluttering guitar. When Tom arrives, he fends off a group of greaser roughnecks menacing his sister’s diner to a piano-boogie roadhouse number, throwing three successive goons through a plate glass window.

The hero’s arrival kicks the drums into even higher gear. Throughout, the movie deeply internalizes the aesthetic of rock and roll. The fight sequence has a staccato rhythm, edited to emphasize the points of impact between Cody’s fists and the gang members’ faces. These are the movie’s drum beats, its points of maximum conflict, and an ever-present reminder of what Tom is fighting for: Ellen, and her rock and roll transcendence. It is the common language of all the people in this world—Raven wants her rock and roll heart for himself, and Tom wants to restore it to the desperate kids who see their dreams in Ellen. That musical language dominates the movie’s every breath, including later in the film, when Tom and his compatriots raid Raven’s headquarters. He fends off the bikers with well-timed cracks of his shotgun’s butt to their heads. One, two, three, four; Hill cuts on impact the way a concert director would on a drumstick’s pop. This is about the beat.

The whole movie is in that beat. It’s in the way it makes you feel about who you are, and who you want to be. These are mythic characters, their rock-and-roll romance and rumble brought to life in full, flashing color. In this place, music is all that anyone has. Even the bikers have their own rockabilly house band, filling their club hideout with living, breathing, shouting noise. The music just is—it emanates from every propped window, every swinging door, every passing car. It floats in the night air, the way people try to hang onto light in times of darkness. The music in this world provides a reminder that escape is possible. There’s hardly a moment of the film when music isn’t on the soundtrack. In its ubiquity, there is the hope that when everything else is stripped away, the music will remain.  

Hill pares away everything else in the film that would slow it down, too. The narrative action takes place over only a few days. The dialogue is aggressively direct, accomplishing in three or four lines what another movie might take an entire scene to do. The narrative economy of the film builds to the climactic battle between Raven and Tom in the streets of The Richmond, beneath the elevated train that seems to block out the sun. In it, the two men each wield a massive sledgehammer, swinging them wildly at one another like knights from a coal-mine. Their wooden handles clunk, their metal heads clank against each other, smash broken glass, and glance off concrete pylons. Yet again, the beat is the thing, as Hill cuts right to the moments of impact, skipping past Cody’s follow through or Raven’s stumble, and playing just the hits. Here are a rock-and-roll hero and a rock-and-roll villain, waging street warfare like gods in the heavens, their hammers dumpster trash and celestial totems in equal measure.

The movie’s extraordinary devotion to its own musicality in every moment makes this world convincing. On the trip back from Raven’s hideout, the rescuers are stranded in the city’s red light district, Tom stops a passing bus—it turns out to be the tour bus for a group of Temptations-like aspiring doo-wop singers, The Sorels (Stoney Jackson, Mykelti Williamson, Robert Townsend, and Grand Bush). After Tom and the others board at gunpoint, with Baby Doll (Elizabeth Daily), an Ellen Aim super-fan, in tow, The Sorels treat Ellen to a performance of a song, “Countdown to Love.” This is a movie that doesn’t just stop its story to watch a musical number—the musical number is the story. And that story is one of community. The rock-and-roll bus takes everyone—the nebbishy manager, Fish; the loner hero, Tom; the tough gal McCoy; the rock star Ellen; the groupie Baby Doll; the four dreamers, The Sorels. This is a vision of music’s power. It offers something for everyone individually, but more importantly, something for everyone together. Above all, the movie believes in the shared experience of rock and roll. Music can heal a wounded community. Music can deliver us from evil. Music can become a way of life.       

One of the film’s greatest achievements, especially with the benefit of hindsight, is its enthusiastic commitment to its own sincerity. It offers no ironic wink, no pointed elbow to the ribs, no gleeful smirk that lets us all know it’s okay to think this is some big joke. This is a 94-minute attempt at the cinematic equivalent of a hard-charging, drum-beating, guitar-soaring, rip-roaring rock and roll radio rumble.

By contrast, when cinema’s fantasy worlds are depicted on screen today, they are almost always accompanied by a pervasive sense of self-awareness that allows an audience to detach. In the original Iron Man, Colonel Rhodes (Terrence Howard) looks at one of the mechanical suits on his way out of Stark’s lab just before the climax, briefly considering stepping inside it. He stops short, muttering “Next time”—to who? Himself? The audience? Don Cheadle?—and runs out. The message here is clear: Come back for more Rhodes. Come back for War Machine. Come back. Always come back, but almost never, be here, with us, right now. For a mainstream cinema dominated by superheroes and galaxies far, far away, we aren’t asked to risk believing in something, and sitting with it, very often.

Streets of Fire wants you to believe. It asks you to throw yourself completely into its vision of a world where if there’s any hope at all, it lives inside the heartbeat of rock and roll. It is in the faith in a better tomorrow represented in The Sorels’ performance of “I Can Dream About You” for the Richmond crowd as part of the film’s extended denouement. And it is in the collective transcendence of the anthemic climactic number, “Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young,” performed by Ellen Aim and The Attackers, with The Sorels as backup singers.

Here’s one part of what she sings to the Richmond young people:

I’ve got a dream when the darkness is over
We’ll be lying in the rays 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
(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
Tonight is what it means to be young

A call to believe totally in yourself. To risk caring about something real. To forget about the things that tell you no. To realize that tonight is maybe all you’ve got. To make life one long rock and roll tonight.

Affirmation of the now. This moment.

Streets of Fire is what it means to be young.