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.