A self-described “A Rock and Roll Fable” from “another time, another place,” I think of Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire (1984) as a rock and roll western dropped into the urban badlands of a brick and neon noir. It opens on what appears to be the 1950s frozen in time, a working class neighborhood forgotten in the explosion of the post-war American big city dreams. It could be Chicago (where some of the film was shot) or New York or any city, really, a film noir in comic book color, and it’s where former soldier turned shaggy soldier of fortune Tom Cody (Michael Paré) returns to play reluctant hero.
The opening sequence is a model of narrative efficiency and stylistic exhilaration, setting the atmosphere and culture of this urban backwater where the elevated train rumbles the reminder of the way out of town and the neon-bedazzled old music palace is the only reminder of the glory days. It’s lit up to welcome superstar Ellen Aim (Diane Lane), the local girl made girl as a rock and roll star, and the crowds are revved up for the show. So is Raven (Willem Dafoe in lizard-faced villain mode), who leads his biker gang The Bombers (doppelgangers of Marlon Brando’s The Wild Ones right down to the cocky caps) into town and leaves with Ellen in tow: a western raid reworked in mid-century mode. It’s all set to the beat of Jim Steinman rock anthem belted out by Ellen Aim and the Attackers and supercharged by jagged wipes, driving cuts, and a restless camera that sweeps along with the swirl of constant movement. It is action cinema as pulp mythology and it is exhilarating.
[Originally published in Eugene Weekly, 1999, reprinted for the DVD new rerelease]
In 1996 composer, producer, and guitar legend Ry Cooder entered Egrem Studios in Havana with the forgotten greats of Cuban music, many of them in their 60s and 70s, some of them long since retired. The resulting album, “The Buena Vista Social Club” (named after a once great but long since defunct Havana music hall) became a Grammy winning international bestseller, bringing this exciting, percussive music to the world, and more importantly bringing it back to Cuba. The album turned the spotlight on long neglected artists and revived dead or defunct careers. In 1998 Cooder returned to Havana to record a solo album by 72 year old vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer (“the Cuban Nat King Cole,” according to Cooder) and as he reassembled his master class of musicians, filmmaker Wim Wenders was on hand to document the occasion.
Wenders splits the film between portraits of the performers, who tell their stories directly to the camera as Wenders wanders the streets and neighborhoods of Havana, and a celebration of the music heard in performance scenes in the studio, in their first concert in Amsterdam, and in their second and final concert at Carnegie Hall. There are some terrific stories in the film. Ibrahim Ferrer, once a major vocalist, was making his living shining shoes when Cooder tracked him down for the album. 80 year old pianist Ruben Gonzalez hadn’t played in ten years and insisted that arthritis prevented him from taking it back up (his subsequent performances dispels that statement immediately). Guitarist/singer Compay Segundo is a father of five at 92 and isn’t giving up hope for a sixth. The way Wenders intercuts their stories with spotlight concert performances gives the audience a taste of their art before introducing the person behind the performer, then concludes with their spotlight performance in concert. The music is marvelous on its own, but the background enriches our experience of the performance.