Songs On Screen: All week HitFix will be featuring tributes by writers to their favorite musical moments from TV and film. Check out all the entries in the series here.
When we talk about underrated directors, it's hard not to mention Walter Hill. Hill is an underrated director, the way Michael Ritchie and Peter Yates were underrated directors, the way Roger Donaldson, Joe Dante, and Fred Schepisi are underrated directors.
They”re all underrated because it”s only when you look at their filmographies that the numbers start to total up and you realize, boy, he directed a lot of really good movies.
In Hill”s case, that list includes “The Warriors,” “48 Hours,” “The Long Riders,” “Southern Comfort,: “Hard Times,” “Trespass,” and “Wild Bill.” Some great. Some solid. (My personal favorite of those is Hard Times, a pulpy film about bare-knuckle boxers in the Great Depression.) There were clunkers along the way – Mickey Rourke”s “Johnny Handsome,” Ralph Macchio playing blues guitar in “Crossroads,” Bruce Willis” “Yojimbo” update, “Last Man Standing.” But overall, a better career than he gets credit for. (And we didn”t even touch on his involvement in the Alien series.)
Hill has an ear for music, too, employing Ry Cooder as his composer for many of his movies. And yet, the movie that was his valentine to rock and roll is one of the duds of his catalog: “Streets of Fire.”
“Streets of Fire” was Hill's follow-up to “48 Hrs.” It starred Michael Pare straight off of” Eddie and the Cruisers,” Diane Lane straight off of her Coppola/Hinton double-header of “Rumble Fish” and “The Outsiders,” Ghostbusters-era Rick Moranis, and Willem Dafoe, just before his breakthroughs in “To Live and Die in LA” and “Platoon.”
It was the movie where the tagline on its poster – “A Rock and Roll Fable” – only seemed to beg hubris. A fable? Already, you”re starting on shaky ground.
But the challenge with any movie about fictional rock and rollers is this: does the music actually make the grade?
If you have a fictional band playing on a stage, that song they”re singing better pass muster.
At the center of “Streets of Fire” is a plot involving biker gangs taking a rock and roll singer hostage, and her mercenary ex-boyfriend being hired to get her back.
Several scenes take place in the fictional city of Hill's “rock and roll fable” take place at a fictional rock club, Torchie's. Among the acts are a soul band called The Sorels. Stoney Jackson plays the lead singer of the band. Among the back-up singers are Mykelti Williamson and Robert Townsend, each with long careers ahead of him.
In the movie, when the group gets ready for their big number – one that begins with that bass-line, and where the first verse is so incredibly brief before jumping into that chorus… the song is sung by Winston Ford.
What”s your criteria for great movie music?
Is it a piece of score that perfectly blends with its film, creating an iconic marriage of sound and vision? Think Morricone”s score for “The Mission,” as the cross heads over the waterfall. Bacharach and Bj Thomas playing as Paul Newman and Katharine Ross fool around on a bicycle. The zither playing as Holly Martins races after the “Third Man” only to discover that it”s his late friend, Harry Lime.
Should we favor songs that make mention of the characters of the movie – that captures in its exposition events of the film – Gene Pitney singing about “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” being the bravest of them all. Cilla Black asking what”s it all about, Alfie. Christopher Cross singing about how Arthur he does what he pleases. (Burt Bacharach sure gets around.)
Maybe you love a song where its use in a film feels anachronistic or disjointed, ironic – and in its use, it reveals new textures to the movie it accompanies. Those Leonard Cohen songs in “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” or when “Son of a Preacher Man” comes on in “Pulp Fiction.” (My favorite Tarantino needle drop is the use of Jim Croce”s “I”ve Got a Name” during the training sequence in Django Unchained – a sequence owing not a small amount to, yes, “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.”)
But it”s easy to feel sheepish when you love a song in a not-so-great movie.
Especially when that song wasn”t especially written for the film. A song that a music supervisor placed, because, hey, this”ll do.
What”s even harder would be to love a song where the lyrics have absolutely nothing to do with the movie and its characters, where the songwriter had written it years before, and where the songwriter realized at a certain point that it was such a good song, that he made sure that, though it was sung by someone else in the movie, his version would actually be the one on the soundtrack, the one that became a huge hit.
That would be very hard, to love a song like that.
Dan Hartman was already well into his thirties in the early 1980s.
He had early success – and big success – at 21 years old, singing lead on the Edgar Winter Group”s biggest hit, “Free Ride,” a song he wrote and that hit #14 on the Billboard charts. Solo albums followed, a song or two that cracked the top 40, the requisite disco album.
But by the early-mid ’80s, his singing career ice cold, he was focusing on songwriting. He came up with a song that felt like perfect blue-eyed soul. And in the early ’80s, no one was having bigger success with blue-eyed soul than Hall and Oates. Hartman was friends with them, so he got in touch with Daryl and John and told them he had the perfect song for them. But Hall and Oates had just completed a new album: they couldn”t add it to the record, so they declined.
A few months later, music producer Jimmy Iovine was putting together the soundtrack and music that would be used for Hill”s movie. He asked Hartman to write a song for it, telling Hartman that the song would be sung by a doo wop-style soul singing group in a club. Hartman gave him the demo he made of “I Can Dream About You.”
But somehow, though in the film the song was sung by a studio singer – Winston Ford – with the actor Stoney Jackson lip-synching in the movie, Hartman maneuvered it so that he himself would sing the version of the song appearing on the soundtrack album.
The film”s musical director, Kenny Vance, later said, “When you look at the film and the Sorels are singing it live in the movie, that was the version that was supposed to come out, and I recorded that version. But then when Dan Hartman heard it, I don”t know what happened next, but I know that he took that guy”s voice off, and he put his own on, and he had a hit with it.”
The suggestion from some casual Internet research is that Hartman had it in his contract that his version would be released if a single were to be issued from the soundtrack.
But can you blame him?
You write a song, you think it”s really good, and then you realize it”s that good.
Wouldn”t you want to ride that star?
“Streets of Fire” came out on June 1, 1984, grossing a paltry $2.4 million its opening weekend, clobbered by “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.” It ended up only making 8 million dollars in the US; with a $14.5 million budget, it was a failure.
But “I Can Dream About You,” written and sung by Dan Hartman, was released in April of that year.
It was a hit, reaching #6 on the Billboard Hot 100.
But in researching this, I was surprised to see that it didn”t go even further up the charts.
It didn”t hit number one?
There are two music videos for “I Can Dream About You.”
One of them features the sequence in the movie, with the Sorels on stage lip-synching the song, but with the Dan Hartman version playing. You can”t find any video on YouTube that features the actual clip of the film, featuring the Winston Ford vocal.
The other music video has Dan Hartman playing a bartender, who ends up standing on the bar singing to flirt with a pretty lady at the bar, while scenes from the movie play on a nearby television. (The woman in the bar? Joyce Hyser, best known as the lead in ’80s favorite “Just One of the Guys” and a former Springsteen paramour.)
But when you watch the version with the Sorels, even though it”s inescapably strange watching a high, white voice coming out of Stoney Jackson”s mouth, it also feels like a song that a successful soul group would be singing. It feels real. It passes muster. It feels like a song that could be a hit, and, even more of a challenge, that feels true to the ’50s and ’60s music that Hill”s movie was so trying to embody.
Sure, it”s awash with eighties gloss and synthesizers. But it has soul – you can even find footage of Hartman performing the song on Soul Train, Don Cornelius himself introducing him: “Our next guest has as broad a following as any artist in our industry.”
(After Hartman sang, Cornelius asks him, “Why does that one sound so familiar? It”s almost like an oldie or something.” Hartman tells him that “I don”t know, it has a Motown influence… (the filmmakers) wanted something that had an R&B feel.”)
And then the lyric, all about the yearning for being with someone you can”t have, you can”t be with – isn”t that universal?
Nine years old when I first heard this song, it connected with me. (I didn”t even see the movie until years later, on a scratched VHS tape.) Because what does a nine year old know about romantic love, except for what he sees or hears in the movies and on the radio?
“I Can Dream About You” didn”t win the Oscar for Best Song. How could it? It didn”t even get nominated, even though it was eligible.
The songs that were nominated were all memorable – Phil Collins” “Against All Odds (Take A Look at Me Now),” Ray Parker Jr”s “Ghostbusters,” and both the title track and “Let”s Hear It For the Boy” from “Footloose.”
But the Best Song winner at the 57th Academy Awards? “I Just Called To Say I Love You,” from “The Woman in Red,” and I think there”s nothing that I can say to that that wasn”t already said better in “High Fidelity.”
But it”s not as if “The Woman in Red” was a great movie. And it certainly wasn”t much better than “Streets of Fire. “
Walter Hill would direct many more films after “Streets of Fire.” A western mini-series he directed, “Broken Trail”, starring Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church, had massive ratings for AMC in 2006, and earned a Best Mini-Series Emmy in the process.
Jimmy Iovine founded Interscope Records, and when it merged with Geffen and A&M, he became its chairman. In 2008, he teamed up with Dr. Dre to found Beats by Dre, later selling the headphones company to Apple for what was said to be 2.6 billion in cash and 400 million in Apple stock.
Dan Hartman slipped into the Top 40 a few more times, but never again with the success of “I Can Dream About You.”
He had further success as a songwriter for movies, though, producing and co-writing James Brown”s “Living in America,” featured in “Rocky IV.”
In 1994, twenty-two years after “Free Ride,” Hartman died, of a brain tumor connected with AIDS. He was only 43.
He had kept his HIV status a secret, never coming out as gay to the public.
Given that, it”s hard not to watch the Joyce Hyser version of the video without an extra layer of poignancy, Hartman having to pretend to go for the girl, all to sell his record. (The end of the video, when Hartman helps Hyser down from the bar, is especially awkward.)
But it”s also impossible to avoid reading some of the lyrics of the song in a new light – that while this 1984 song features a universal lyric about yearning for love, it can also be interpreted in a way more specific to Hartman”s sexuality: his having to keep it under wraps, his having to keep his relationships a secret:
Moving sidewalks, I don”t see under my feet
Climbing up from, down here below
Where the streets see me lonely for you
I can dream about you, if I can”t hold you tonight.
In 2004, Hall and Oates released a covers album called Our Kind of Soul.
It featured their versions of soul classics, ranging from Motown (“Standing in the Shadows of Love”) to Atlantic Records (“Rock Steady”), from the Philadelphia sound (“I”ll Be Around”) to Barry White (“Can”t Get Enough of Your Love.”)
But the sixth track on the album was their version of the song their friend wrote for them and offered to them, more than twenty years earlier.
Performing “I Can Dream About You” live, Daryl Hall related the story of how Dan Hartman had a hit with it. .
“So here we are twenty years later.” Hall looked up to the sky, and continued: “I hope he”s hearing it, and I hope he enjoys it.”
Michael Oates Palmer has written for television for over twelve years; his credits include The West Wing, Rubicon, and Crossbones. A member of the Writers Guild of America West Board of Directors, he lives in Venice, California. He tweets at @oatespalmer.