Friday, February 19, 2021

It Was the 80s: St. Elmo's Fire

Once upon a time, I was an undergraduate in a graduate-level film class at the U of M. One of the projects in the class involved the grad students going out and filming the concepts we were learning about and then bringing back the footage to then "mentor" the undergrads with. One of the grads (who already considered himself MIGHTILY above us all) took this very seriously and used his footage as an opportunity to lecture us for over an hour. The footage was nothing special, something a child could have pointed a camera at and shot, a bunch of buildings in downtown St. Paul in the middle of winter strung together at random. We watched, unimpressed. Next, he showed us the same images a second time but against a soundtrack of some big band jazz song, asking us to pay special attention to how the experience was different this time around. We watched, still unimpressed. I did not share my reaction with the class (because I'm not mean) but if I had, it would have been: Uninteresting, basic images and then uninteresting, basic images set to music. Got it. The music didn't really stand for anything, it wasn't being used ironically, but the images and the music together definitely made for a better viewing experience. If anything it was a way for this person to appear to know what he was doing. TL,DR: music is a powerful tool in filmmaking.

Does this have anything to do with St. Elmo's Fire? A little. Obviously Joel Schumacher is leagues more knowledgeable than the grad student in my story (who has since become a professor). Adding arbitrary music won't save a project from its own badness, but adding good music and positioning it at just the right moments can make a film come off as skilled and memorable and can do a lot of heavy emotional lifting where the script may fall short. 

St. Elmo's Fire, 1985. d. Joel Schumacher 

starring: Demi Moore, Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson, Mare Winningham

Summary: "A group of friends, just out of college, struggle with adulthood." IMDB

This story embodies perfectly what my childhood idea of post-college life would be like. As I was a nine-year-old child living in a rural midwestern town when it came out, I didn't know much, but I knew I wanted to be like these cats. Bar-hopping with the same group of friends, quirky apartments, a group CHANT, you know, those kinds of things. I learned of the film from seeing trailers on television and from John Parr's music video for "Man in Motion" on MTV but I was not yet allowed to see R rated films in the theater, so I lived for the little glimpses from these. Imagine my joy when a friend of my mother's (at some posh lake house we were at the next summer) had St. Elmo's Fire on VHS! At ten, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven (read: Rob Lowe 80s aesthetic) but more than that, I still thought these people were cool as hell. Also, I wanted to learn that piano theme terribly. It wasn't at all realistic, I later learned, but as a cultural piece of white people in the 80s and a story about friendship, it still holds up. I still listen to the soundtrack, regularly, regrettably missing is the fated let's-rock-in-conversational-tone-bar-piece, "One Love," performed by Billy Hixx and The New Breed,** but it still slaps, as the kids say.

The film opens with the crew walking away from a frat house building in graduation caps and gowns and quickly transitions to the aftermath of a car accident in an emergency room. As the group of friends is SO close-knit and still BFFS even after graduating college we see that when one of their own gets injured, they drop what they're doing to be with her in her time of need. This also serves as exposition to who everyone is, what they do, and how they're linked to each other:

Wendy (Winningham): the injured. Frumpy, virginal, rich parents (loves Billy)

Billy (Lowe): drunk companion of Wendy, cause of accident. Plays saxophone, hyper-sexual

Jules (Moore): hot pink evening gown and stole. Eccentric, glamorous, wild

Kirby (Estevez): in waiter's uniform. Stays to flirt with doctor, romantic and hopeful

Kevin (McCarthy): trench coat and camo pants. Pessimistic writer who throws out random deep thoughts (secretly in love with Leslie)

Leslie (Sheedy): sensible businesswoman. Responsible, shows empathy (lives with Alec)

Alec (Nelson): young political strategist. Type A, bossy, former democrat, now a republican (lives with Leslie)

After Wendy is discharged from the hospital, lamenting the state of her car, they all go to St. Elmo's Bar to drink more (as one does in the aftermath of a drunk driving accident). On goes the story, showing us bits of the characters' professional lives and more of their relationships with each other. A party, thrown by Kirby at the fancy estate of his employer, serves as an explosive turning point where many of the group's dramatic issues (Alec's infidelities, Kevin's love for Leslie, Kirby's A-level stalking prowess, and the beginnings of Jules's downfall in a thwarted confession to Billy) are revealed, and suddenly, things aren't so sunny anymore. Post-college adulthood is, to use Billy's preferred phrasing, more "out of hand" than any of them anticipated. 

Technically, the film is solid. The fall scenery, the collegiate settings (meant to portray Georgetown but actually shot on the University of Maryland's campus), and the huge height-of-the-80s apartments are all appealing throughout. The casting is perfect, everyone is attractive, and the pacing of the story, pretty fast-paced, moves along well with every character's unique struggles and interactions with others. The music elevates the experience, no matter where it's used. Even the seemingly throwaway conversation Alec and Leslie have over which albums she's allowed to take when she moves out drives the point that this era, this music, even the music choices of the characters (or their musical abilities)---all are very meaningful. In my opinion, you cannot have a discussion of this film and its place within 80s culture without honoring these music choices.

Hungry for more? Cameron of Obnoxious and Anonymous (@ObnoxandAnony) and I sat down for a nice long chat about St. Elmo's fire yesterday. Let us know what you think about it! 

**The song, as well as the clip from the film of Billy performing it (LET'S ROCK) is showcased beautifully over on UncleTNuc! You can find it HERE