The film, St Elmo’s Fire, opened in 1985 to mixed reviews. A coming-of-age film about a group of seven friends straight out of college hardly seems like something revolutionary in 2020, but way back in the 80s films like these paved the way for an entire genre of young adult films that followed.
This year at 9Lives, we’re watching twelve films from my old DVD collection. I bought this film at a Look & Listen in Bloemfontein. It was sorted under the Art House section, which I queried at checkout, but they explained that they simply didn’t recognise the title so it obviously needed to be placed there.
Setting the scene
IMDB gives the official film synopsis as; “Seven friends have just finished university and are starting out in their careers. They are having to come to terms with careers, having to be more responsible, to fend for themselves and with all the decisions and issues life throws at them. Some are coping better than others and some aren’t coping at all.”
Critics choice award
Earlier in 1985, Hollywood and young adult filmmaking powerhouse, John Hughes, released the legendary Breakfast Club and unlike St Elmo’s Fire (directed by Joel Schumacher), the film explores the intricate lives of high school students as opposed to young adults trying to navigate the strange middle ground between youth and adulthood. The catch is that these movies actually starred three of the same actors; Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy and Emilio Estevez.
Looking at the film contextually is extremely important as these actors, together with a few of their peers, were named ‘the brat pack’ by New York Times’ David Blum. This is, of course, a play on Sinatra’s ‘rat pack’, but with the intent of signalling out these young actors as bratty in their enjoyment of the spoils of fame. Blum went on to name Emilio Estevez the unofficial leader of the brat pack.
The rest of the names from the New York Times article might surprise you; Tom Cruise, Sean Penn, Nicholas Cage, Matt Dillon and Rob Lowe. Blum goes on to say that these actors skipped some steps on their way to the top, going straight from high school into acting. Not following the path of some of the greats like De Niro, Marlon Brando and Al Pacino.
As you can probably imagine, Blum’s article, as well as the term ‘brat pack’, did some damage to some of these actors’ careers and after the publication, most of them never again starred in the same movies as they were advised by agents and managers to steer clear.
The Blume article was published on 10 June 1985. St Elmo’s Fire was released on 28 June 1985. The circumstances surrounding the movie’s release was definitely not ideal. Upon opening, critics almost unanimously agreed that there were too many characters, unbelievable plotlines (how does Billy the Kid end up with the Virginal Wendy) and rushed cinematography.
Some of the harshest critics, like the Chicago Tribune, probably most accurately worded the sentiment of the time; “Barely has there been a group of more smug and obnoxious characters in a single film than in ‘’St. Elmo`s Fire’, a drama about the trauma of the post-college months of today`s materialistic young graduates.”
The truth is that it is not all bad. Critics had all-around praise for Schumacher’s spectacular sets and his willingness to make fun of his characters and actors. The New York Times further congratulated him on “… persistent, slap-happy bonhomie that eventually gives way to adolescent honesty, ‘’Breakfast Club’’-style: when the hubbub dies down there are tears, confessions, vows to change and promises of eternal friendship. This sort of authenticity, formulaic as it is, is far preferable to the film’s attempts to touch base with harsh reality”.
Viewer’s Choice Awards
I love St Elmo’s Fire – always have. During varsity, I became obsessed with John Hughes’ movies, like The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink. To this day, though, it’s the Schumacher that really stole my heart.
The film has aged extremely well, better than The Breakfast Club in my opinion. All of the issues that they struggle with are still relevant, the personalities (albeit some exaggerated caricatures) are still relatable. It has that nostalgic sense of belonging that made Friends and How I Met Your Mother so popular.
If the character of Billy seems familiar, it is because Stranger Things’ Billy is based directly on Rob Lowe’s Billy the Kid. This is not surprising as the series is known to pay homage to classic 80s pop culture. And although their version of Billy is definitely more of a bad-guy than the film’s, some of his mannerisms are clearly identifiable
To me, St Elmo’s Fire is just such a feel-good film, as these movies are meant to be. And yes, while I do agree with some critics on the number of actors and credibility of some of the storylines, I think that audiences today will be able to enjoy the film even more as it is now devoid of the nuances that plagued the film upon its first release.
“We’re all going through this. It’s our time on the ledge”, Billy explains to Jules at the climax of the film as she sits rocking herself in the ice-cold wind, and that is the gist of the story and the takeaway; what you are going through is all part of growing up, just like a St Elmo’s Fire is spontaneous bursts of light in the sky. And if you hate everything else about the film, I hope you enjoy the song ‘cause it’s so damn catchy!
St Elmo’s Fire is available for streaming on Apple TV.