St. Elmo’s Fire (1985)
Starring Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, Demi Moore, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Mare Winningham, Andie MacDowell, Martin Balsam, Jenny Wright and Matthew Laurence. Directed by Joel Schumacher. From Columbia Pictures.
The film depicts seven friends – all apparently the same age – who have just graduated from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.. The film plots their varied efforts to make their way in life. The two unofficial “leaders” of the group are Alec Newbury (Nelson) and Leslie Hunter (Sheedy). Rob Lowe is perfectly cast as Billy Hicks, the frat boy party animal who is estranged from his wife and baby and is in an on-again, off-again relationship with Wendy (Winningham), the virginal member of the group. Kevin Dolenz (McCarthy) is an aspiring writer and Kirby Keager (Estevez) is going to law school and the two share an apartment. Jules Van Patten is somewhat of a female Billy Hicks – beautiful, popular and wild. Jules works in international banking but soon loses her way.
As the film opens, Billy and Wendy have been in a car accident. A drunken Billy is at fault; it is the same old story with him. The rest of the gang shows up at the hospital to find the couple unscathed. Kirby spots Dr. Dale Biberman (MacDowell) and shares an exchange with her, rekindling an old flame. The group heads to their hang-out – St. Elmo’s Bar, where Kirby works as a waiter – to discuss the accident and decompress. Jules wonders aloud why Kevin is so moody lately. Kevin shrugs it off. Billy checks in with his wife, Felicia (Wright), and the call doesn’t go well; also the same old story. Wendy reveals to the girls that Billy lost the job that Alec got for him which angers Alec. He reprimands Billy, saying that his irresponsibility is hard on all of them. Later in their apartment, Alec again puts pressure on Leslie to marry him but his efforts are interrupted by Jules at the door. She is still stressing about her step-mother, who is dying in the hospital and worries about the expense of a funeral. In their apartment, Kevin and Kirby go back and forth about the pros and cons of love when Billy arrives saying he needs a place to crash.
The next day the gang is in Jules’ jeep when Alec announces he has got a plum job working for a senator. Jules has Kevin over and tries to get him to admit that he is gay and in love with Alec. He denies it and leaves in a huff. Kevin is at Alec and Leslie’s apartment for dinner and Alec takes Kevin aside and confesses to sleeping with another woman. Alec claims that Leslie committing to marry him will make him faithful. Wendy has Billy over for supper. Billy’s rebellious nature clashes hilariously with Wendy’s uptight family. Billy causes a stir by sitting on Wendy’s roof where he reveals that he has struggled since graduation. Poignantly, he tells her that school was fun but real life is not and he is having trouble dealing. During their conversation, Wendy reveals she is a virgin which seems to fascinate and shock Billy. Billy makes an advanced play for Wendy which she rebuffs. She says they shouldn’t see each other anymore, gives Billy his rent money and goes upstairs. Billy is remorseful. He leaves the money behind and walks out.
At St. Elmo’s, Jules tells Leslie that she is having an affair with her boss and Leslie and Wendy agree that Jules is spiraling. Billy sees his wife with another guy and attacks him. Out on the street, Billy and Felicia start to fight and are pulled apart; only to fall into each others arms. Kirby is now in full pursuit of Dale. He assumes that she respects money so he takes a job with a Korean gangster and invites Dale to a party. When she doesn’t show, Kirby loses it and travels up to the lodge where she has gone skiing. Kirby finds her there with another guy. The snow keeps him there overnight. In the morning, Kirby has a change of heart. He kisses Dale farewell and leaves her with thoughts that maybe she is missing out. Meantime, Billy makes a play for a drunken Jules who kicks him out of her jeep onto his front stoop. Felicia has seen the exchange and is not impressed. Billy goes back to his fraternity and is given a hero’s welcome. When he expresses a desire to perhaps get a job on campus, his friends are thrilled – only because if he does he will be able to provide them with drugs. This depresses Billy. When he meets Felicia and the baby there, she suggests an annulment. Billy says he is going to shape up.
At a party, Alec forces the issue by announcing to all that he and Leslie are engaged. She is angered and takes him aside. Playing a hunch, she questions him about his philandering. Alec blows it by assuming Kevin has spilled the beans. He knocks Kevin down and tells Leslie to move out of their apartment. Kevin takes Leslie home to his place where he reveals that the reason he doesn’t date and people think he’s gay is because he has a deep, hidden love for her. This is timely news for her and they have sex. Alec shows up to apologize and finds them together. Later, Kevin is talking love and moving in together but Leslie shuts him down saying she needs time to herself. This crushes Kevin.
Alarm bells go off when Leslie finds that collection agencies have repossessed all of Jules’ belongings and she has locked herself in her empty apartment with the windows open, hoping the cold November winds blowing in will kill her. The gang rallies and Billy breaks in and talks Jules off the ledge. Later, Billy realizes he has to move on. He has an intimate night with Wendy and then he is seen off at the bus station; he is bound for New York. Leslie tells Alec and Kevin that she loves them both but needs to be on her own. The gang plan to meet for drinks – but, they decide, not at St. Elmo’s. Somewhere else. Where there are less kids.
St. Elmo’s’ Fire takes place between the middle of September and early November and it contains some excellent autumn scenery. This makes it perfect for viewing in the fall. It was shot during the last three months of the year in and around Georgetown. The University itself read the script and decided it was not going to let the filmmakers shoot on the grounds so the University of Maryland stood in for the school scenes. St. Elmo’s Bar was based on a real life watering hole in Georgetown called The Tombs although the exterior shots of the bar were shot on the lot in Hollywood – just steps away from the clock tower in ‘Hill Valley’ as seen in Back to the Future. This “autumn movie” is also among my “Top 25” favourite films. I list it among the ten films I fell in love with while I was still a teenager. It is a coming-of-age story, a sub-genre for which I have a particular affection. My man, Brian Wilson, once said that growing up is a dramatic story. No matter what a person’s situation, simply going from ‘child’ to ‘adult’ is, in and of itself, a very serious pivot point in life. A coming-of-age story can have an appeal to those who are currently going through this phase of life and it can also inspire nostalgia in those who have long since past that point. The coming-of-age film makes for a great story that many age groups can relate to. It is rife with plot points and possibilities.
The film stars members of the “Brat Pack” – a group of young hip actors who frequently appeared in movies together during the 1980’s. Rob Lowe and Demi Moore have gone on to a certain degree of celebrity while the others remain most notable for the films they made together at this time. I have to single out Andrew McCarthy, though. One of my personal favourites, he possessed a quirky sort of casual charm and he’s always been a cherished “sleeper” sort of actor for me, showing up in great films like Less Than Zero, Weekend at Bernie’s and Mulholland Falls. St. Elmo’s Fire is noted as being the film that contained the highest number of “Brat Packers” and it is a great-looking and beloved cast. Lowe, McCarthy and Moore look particularly spectacular and the rest are outfitted and coiffed perfectly for their individual characterizations. Although Demi Moore was struggling with addiction at the time, she and Estevez – son of Martin and brother of Charlie Sheen – dated during the making of the film and Mare Winningham, playing Wendy, the virgin, was already a mother. Jenny Wright is a quirky actress in the Lori Petty mold. She appeared in a hidden favourite of mine, Valentino Returns (1989) but later dropped off the face. And Matthew Laurence appears as Jules’ gay neighbour, Ron. Laurence had been in another of my “Top 25” favourite films two years prior to this; Eddie and the Cruisers.
The girls in this film are dressed according to their characters. In Leslie and Wendy’s case, they are appropriately dressed as an upwardly-mobile modern woman and a safe, self-conscious virginal-type, respectively. Moore gets to wear fancier clothes as Jules and she looks great in glasses. In my opinion – and, yes, I’m a guy – it’s the boys that look cool in this film, particularly Billy and Kevin. Billy has taken to wearing a blazer over top of his fraternity coat and it’s a great look for him. It may even be representative of his struggles letting go of school and joining the real world. It’s a look I remember once trying to adopt. It did not go over. Later, Billy scores in his coveralls from his job at a gas station, earning extra points for his high-cut canvas Converse – one black and one green. Kevin is the moody writer who generally keeps himself under wraps and this is borne out by his great employing of an overcoat and fedora. A shout-out should go to costume designer Susan Becker who served in the same capacity for other films featuring hip, young people: The Lost Boys, Flatliners and True Romance.
The film was co-written and directed by Joel Schumacher, who had previously been a costume designer before turning to directing; St. Elmo’s Fire was his third effort as director. He would go on to direct such films as The Lost Boys, Batman Forever, A Time to Kill and Batman and Robin.
Schumacher’s co-writer on this project was Carl Kurlander. St. Elmo’s Fire was the only feature film that Kurlander worked on and the story is autobiographical. This can serve as an inspiration of sorts for those of us who feel that we have but one story in us – the story of our lives – and would love to see that story come to life as a film or television show. It puts me in mind of another of my “Top 25”, Dirty Dancing, which was the autobiographical story of Eleanor Bergstein. Her screenplay for that beloved film is also an instance where a screenwriter has one solitary feature film credit. Kurlander went on to work on teen shows on television, notably creating the series Malibu, CA which ran for two seasons starting in 1998. This series stands out to me because, if you look it up, it features NOT ONE actor that you recognize. I defy anyone to look up that cast and spot someone you know or have seen in something. Fascinating. Kurlander later left Hollywood to return to Pittsburgh, where he grew up, to teach school and make documentaries, mostly about the possibilities of using “hometowns” like the Steel City as film making alternatives to Tinsel Town.
Canadian David Foster supplies the soundtrack for the film which features his excellent “Love Theme from ‘St. Elmo’s Fire'” which reached #15 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. John Parr performed “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)” which he originally co-wrote with Foster for Rick Hansen, the Canadian athlete who was traveling around the world in his wheelchair raising awareness of spinal cord injuries. This song fared even better on the charts, peaking at #1 for two weeks in September of ’85.
For me, the appeal of the film lies in the way this group of friends is depicted. Here we see the type of alliances most of us wish that we had or had had growing up. The script does a great job of establishing the make-up of each character early on and how they relate to others in the group. I might go so far as to call the script “perfect” in this respect. In the opening ten minutes the characters are basically fully formed and explained to the viewer. Certainly by the end of the second scene – the first time we see the gang together at St. Elmo’s – you know everyone well. Think about it: the film begins; Alec is dressed like a yuppy and is striding purposefully into the hospital, “plain pretty” Leslie by his side. Billy is gorgeous, has been driving drunk and is flirting with a nurse. Kirby talks legalities with the police officer and establishes his infatuation with Dale Biberman. Frumpy Wendy is making excuses for Billy, whom she obviously loves. Jules shows up dressed like a runway model with her date who looks like an ad for Bronson’s Tuxedos. And in the second scene, Kevin is questioned about why he is down on love and is evasive. Bam. How long did that take? Seven minutes, ten seconds. Effective and engaging screenwriting.
At the time of release, critics savaged St. Elmo’s Fire. It seems they misunderstood Joel Schumacher’s realistic presentation of twentysomethings. These people are horrible and irredeemable, the critics said. This film went a long way to showing what was really going on with people of this age group. The film is almost like a documentary, the relationships are so authentic, the chemistry within the group so palpable. You can clearly see the history here. There is obviously a lot of intimacy between the group members and past experiences are referred to, directly or indirectly. There is a love and a concern for one another evidenced in Alec getting jobs for Billy, Wendy getting money from her father to give to Billy for his rent, Leslie and Wendy trying to intervene in Jules’ life, Jules trying to help Kevin with his love life. Their lives are still wrapped up in each other as they were in school, Felicia going so far as to say to Billy that he is “married to your friends and the bar”. It is significant to note that when Jules is in deep distress the gang comes together despite a lot of friction due to the Alec-Leslie-Kevin situation. Billy’s role here is particularly interesting. First, you’ll note he has left work – with a company vehicle – to come and help. Of course this new job at a garage would seem better suited to Billy, the people there more like him than the people at the jobs Alec was getting for him. Secondly, it’s significant that it is Billy that gets in to talk to Jules. You’ll remember the scene when Jules dropped Billy off at his house and he “broke her heart”; so Billy ‘owes’ her. Also, he is going through the exact same thing Jules is – “we’re all going through this”, he says. Jules is suffering from ‘self-created drama’; trying to project the image of a hip and together lady of the ’80’s. There was a lot of pressure on young people at this time to be Alec – successful, motivated and focused. Such was not always the case. Billy has summed it up earlier on the roof when he lamented the fact that “school was pretty out-of-hand. In everyday life there’s just no way to be out-of-hand”. He speaks for everybody that has ever gone from childhood to adulthood – all of us. It’s a poignant albeit simple observation.
Someone always leaves. I always say that when Billy gets on the bus at the end of the film. Here is a basic but heavy fact of life; sometimes you have to leave the comfort of friends and home if you’re going to make it in the world. I immediately think of one of the original coming-of-age stories, George Lucas’ 1973 classic American Graffiti. At the end of that film, Curt – played by Richard Dreyfuss – also has to leave home to find his way. This is a very concrete way to illustrate the fact that things change. One of the group near the end of St. Elmo’s Fire says sadly “I always thought we’d be friends forever”. It’s a sad reality of life that this is almost never the case. Even the group that’s left after Billy has gone – will they always hang out together? What if someone meets someone who is a stranger to the rest of the gang? What if Alec and Leslie get married and start a family? It gets increasingly hard to hold these relationships together. St. Elmo’s Fire serves as a love letter of sorts to a magical time in a person’s life. That brief moment just before you realize that life is serious and you have to get down to business.
At the end of the film, the friends walk out of the frame and that most perfect of all closing credits songs comes up. With it’s wistful sadness, Foster’s theme perfectly reflects the emotional feelings of this momentous time of life.