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St. Elmo’s Fire

***
1985

‘…St. Elmo’s Fire is self-absorbed and dull, just like the characters that it depicts. But it’s also something of a hoot to see 80’s idiocy laid bare like this…’

It’s taken nearly four decades and a lot of soul-searching, but I’ve finally found a way to enjoy St. Elmo’s Fire. Words cannot express the disdain I felt for this film back in 1985. Arguably the peak Brat Pack movie, Joel Schumacher’s Georgetown-set drama has a starry cast, a hit song, a classy soundtrack by Chicago’s David Foster, and a whole lot of dated angst to offer.

But back in 85, I’d just seen John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club, and wanted more. More rebellion, more anarchy, more questioning of values. More Judd Nelson, More Emilio Estevez, More Ally Sheedy. The trailer for St. Elmo’s Fire had all the personnel on board; surely this must be a sequel, official or otherwise? Seeing these beloved actors reunite on screen, surely this would be the movie that spoke for MY generation? St. Elmo’s Fire captures the moment of 1985 as the seven friends turn their back on their local booze-hole, also named St. Elmo’s Fire, because it’s too loud and the clientele are too young…

…needle-scratch and Wut? Four months previously, Nelson, Estevez and Sheedy were still in high school. Had I missed an episode, or had we somehow gone from teenage rebels to exhausted mortgage-slave conformists without missing a beat? But thirtysomething issues are what we’re looking at here; embroyonic politico Alex (Nelson) defects from the Democratic party to the Republicans, and consequently starts cheating on his wife Leslie (Sheedy) with an unseen lingerie-wearing woman in a department store changing room. Estevez develops a crush on medic Dale (Andie MacDowell) and starts stalking her; he ends up visiting her holiday cottage, wearing her pyjamas, and sneaking a kiss while her boyfriend isn’t looking. Stalking is cool, at least in movies, so we join Estevez in punching the air on the drive home as he remembers the fun of it all. Meanwhile Rob Lowe’s Billy is an utter twit, as is Andrew McCarthy’s cringe-worthy writer with a crush, but Demi Moore comes from nowhere to win the upper-class entitled git of the year contest as Jules, a coke-snorting banker whose vague MTV_video billowing curtains suicide attempt provides an end-point for the narrative.

To make things worse, John Parr’s song was clearly written for a different film; the lyrics about a ‘man in motion’ and needing a ‘pair of wheels’ relate to a story about a brave, wheelchair-bound athlete somehow not included here. Parr’s song, however, features twice, but is unremarked on; yup, in St. Elmo’s Fire, the customers in a bar called St. Elmo’s Fire pay no attention when a song called St. Elmo’s Fire plays. It’s one of a catalogue of 80’s inanities, but in the 20’s, it’s easier to just put your feet up, relax, and understand than none of these causally drawn characters speak for anyone but themselves. St. Elmo’s Fire is self-absorbed and dull, just like the characters that it depicts. But it’s also something of a hoot to see 80’s idiocy laid bare like this…yes, friendships falls apart, but we don’t usually present ourselves en masse in a chorus line at the bus station to hug and bid goodbye to our departing pals., and in retrospect, that’s probably for the best.

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  1. St. Elmo’s Fire suffers from the inevitable comparisons to The Breakfast Club. It also suffers from being a much more realistic movie (unfortunately, being a 20-something and 20-somethings themselves can be quite awful).

    • The 20 something featured here are insufferable, and yes, you’re right, bring back memories of my own insufferability at that age. And to that extent, it is realistic. But not a patch on Breakfast.

  2. I’m glad (I think) you made a sort of peace with St. Elmo’s… I didn’t like any of the brat movies, well Outsiders was interesting… I did and do like St. Elmo’s because I knew more than a few folks like the selected seven young, semi privileged, angst riden Rep grads. Though it was supposed to be Georgetown campus, part of movie was filmed at Uni of Md, College Park. I took classes there, and I wasn’t a Rep. This movie seemed to herald a new genre…Mean Girls, Clueless, Fast Times at…the depiction of a certain type of young, educ American works better with humor. Was there a Brit equivalent to brat movies?
    I suspect the producer hoped others would hear certain parts of St Elmo song…’growing up don’t see writing on the wall..you find you’re alone, it’s all changed…in some ways, you’re like me, a prisoner trying to break free…’
    The title also depicts a peculiar type of lightening; the title tries to represent a pinpoint moment in time, when all is possible, everything crackles; there is danger in this brave new world of roller coaster encounters and responsibilities.I agree the acting and staging was a bit amateurish, like the characters portrayed.
    I liked McCarthy’s writer character. He now produces some fabulous The Blacklist shows! Demi kind of stayed true to her character. Billy grew up, lost the earring, and ironically is a TX Fire Chief on a show–he’s still messing with fire! And Elmo’s still out there, splitting the night sky–revealing a new generation of movers, shakers, crusaders, and crooks…Will they be better equipped to deal with 21st c challenges?

    • Wait, this is verging on St Elmo fan fiction, and that might lead the authorities to shut this website down! Actually, I like the setting here, and generally like campus films. No such things as teen movies in heh UK, you are seen but not heard until you’re 40. And I actually do like the metaphor of St Elmo’s fire, even if it’s shoe-horned in. But this looks like a teen/Brat pack movie, but then tries too hard to be an adult drama, and my feeling is not as good as the others on your list. And yes, The Outsiders worked better than this, good old SE Hinton.

      Actually, given that another commenter described this as Friends without jokes, maybe they should do a St Elmo reunion for Netflix. Didn’t realise how well McCarthy has done, but I guess the cast are largely alive, so why not? Excpet they’ve already said goodbye to their youth, so what next indeed? At least we’ll never wear some of the awful outfits featured here, and we can close the windows to stop the curtains billowing…

    • Well, you’ve come to the wrong place….Alex takes up a lot of our bandwidth…

    • I absolutely love this song. I think there was a vocal free instrumental on the back of the 7 inch single, and I re-recorded my own vocals over the top.

  3. yes the billowing curtain empty space MTV video “suicide” I love it. Hey, it was Friends before Friends . . . and I was always a fan of the Monkees as they were proxy Beatles-level (Help!) unique buddy combinations that I envied. I suppose there’s part of us that imagine we’ll always maintain the relationships we think we love as kids. Maybe this film tried to deal with that in some vague way . . . rob’s earring would be too distracting. 🙂

    • It’s pretty out of hand, as Billy says about 800 times here. Friends without jokes is about right, and it’s like excavating a tomb trying to figure out what this is trying to say about relationships. I wouldn’t want any of the relationship portrayed here…

  4. You and Alex doing song title movies in tandem today, is this a new thing? Didn’t see either of the Brat Pack movies, not relevant to my life at the time I guess, so now I’m glad I didn’t. A pass for me too please.

  5. I hated this movie so much that I could hardly read your review for fear it would bring back repressed memories and post traumatic stress. While I’m not in epileptic fits, I am feeling “that old familiar pain.” (Do you see what I did there?). I appreciate the review, but I don’t think I can possibly face this film again.

    • Please don’t try watching this at home without medical assistance. I’m a trained specialist and have been building up via 40 years of conditioning to tackle this film. It’s a cringe, AND a pain, but in a way, I’m glad to know you hated it as much as I did. Fortunately, I’ve been immunised against such awfulness and can laugh about it now.

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