' ' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Jim Steinman

Thursday, April 22, 2021

In Memoriam: Jim Steinman

“If you don’t go over the top,” the American composer, producer and songwriter Jim Steinman told Howard Miller in 2019, “you can’t see what’s on the other side.” Steinman was speaking of his jukebox musical, “Bat Out of Hell”, based on the famed 1977 album Steinman made with Meat Loaf, an especially apt quote for a production about which Miller wrote, not all that critically, “please don’t ask me to explain what it’s about.” That’s a fitting summary of Steinman. You didn’t need to know what “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, the 1983 chart-topper that Steinman wrote and produced for Bonnie Tyler, was about to innately grasp its sonic majesty. And though “Bat Out of Hell” might go down as Steinman’s magnum opus, I will always remember him for his work with Tyler, not just the epic “Total Eclipse” but the even more epic “Faster Than the Speed of Night”, the title track of the album on which “Total Eclipse” appeared, a propulsive six-plus minutes that in some way I know but cannot quite explain more utterly embodies the fantastical idea of a stairway to heaven than “Stairway to Heaven.” (I have long dreamt about Lady Gaga covering “Faster Than the Speed of Night” just as I long dreamt of a Lady Gaga/Jim Steinman collaboration, which probably did not happen if only because Earth, tedious Earth, could never have handled it.) The E Street Band’s Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg played, respectively, piano and drums on “Faster Than the Speed of Night”, just as they played on the whole album, betraying a similarity to Springsteen for which Steinman was often cited – at least, the early, mid-70s Springsteen, when he was as much “West Side Story” as Heartland Rock, though Steinman’s work always felt more intergalactic, catching a rainbow-colored wormhole, not a wave, to some other dimension. 

Speaking of Springsteen, Walter Hill’s 1984 cult-ish classic-ish rock musical “Streets of Fire” took its name from Bruce’s 1978 song of the same title. Billed as “A Rock & Roll Fable”, “Streets of Fire” was set in “Another Time, Another Place”, one that felt like a mishmash of the 1950s and 1980s, just like its music, akin to Springsteen’s “Born to Run” running, to quote Greil Marcus, “on melted down Crystals records.” It’s a movie I dearly love, “an extravagantly stylized pulp burlesque,” wrote critic Sean Burns in 2018, “that is at once an objectively lousy picture and just about the coolest damn thing I’ve ever seen”, which doesn’t feel too far off from Howard Miller essentially throwing up his hands in the face of “Bat Out of Hell: The Musical” and just taking the ride.

The production originally intended to use Springsteen’s “Streets of Fire” as its closing anthem, to be performed by the movie’s rock ’n roll heroes, Ellen Aim & the Attackers. (Diane Lane played Ellen Aim with Holly Sherwood’s voice dubbed in for the music.) But when Bruce, notoriously protective of his work, learned the vocals would be re-recorded by someone else, he withdrew permission. And really, that was for the best. I’m not sure his “Streets of Fire” would have fit. Jim Steinman, then, was enlisted to write a song to take its place, coming up, reportedly in all of two days, with “Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young”, a glittering ballad if not quite at the level of his song that opened the movie - “Nowhere Fast” - if only because “Nowhere Fast” is soundtrack royalty, top of the movie-song pops, an astonishing expression of That Teenage Feeling of being in a hurry with nowhere to go.

This blog has referenced “Nowhere Fast” ad nauseum over the years. In fact, tomorrow’s post, in the can for a week, references it. A few months back we painstakingly confirmed it to be the Best Fake Song In a Movie. No, it did not win the Best Original Song Oscar in 1984 because it was not even nominated for the Best Original Song Oscar in 1984. But, who needs an Oscar? Don’t let the man get you down, as Mr. Cool noted in “The School of Rock.” There has never been a better Original Song in a movie than “Nowhere Fast”, written by Jim Steinman, dead on Monday at the age of 73, and there never will be.

Vive la Ellen Aim. Vive la Jim Steinman.


Will Hansen said...

Fun fact: this was the first movie we watched when we moved back to Chicago in 2014--on our laptop, sitting on the floor, before any of our stuff arrived. It was... hallucinatory.

Nick Prigge said...

I bet! I've never really thought about good Moving movies, but since moving itself (especially across the country) feels like such a hallucination, this one makes a certain kind of sense.