Paul Schrader’s new film Light of Day presents a tangle of themes and possibilities: there’s the vitality of the rock ‘n’ roll bar scene, the emotional toll of a parent’s death, the anger of an irresponsible young unwed mother, the confusion of a kid trying to hold his family together.
Schrader’s an ambitious fellow (he made American Gigolo and Mishima, and wrote Taxi Driver). The trouble with this tangle of ideas is that it remains in its confused condition throughout the film. On some basic level, Schrader doesn’t seem to have decided what the focus of the film is to be, and it never does lock into a groove.
The first few scenes contain some useful shorthand. Under the thundering title tune, we meet a grungy Cleveland bar band rehearsing; their hangout, a dive called the Euclid, is wonderfully realized, down to the wooden Indian over the bar. Joe (Michael J. Fox) and his sister Patty (Joan Jett) front the band with considerable conviction. Sensible Joe supplements his income working in a factory where they make trays embossed with the British royal family; fiery Patty just wants to be a singer and have a life of music.
A couple of scenes later, they drive to their parents’ house, along with Patty’s illegitimate son. The visit does not go well. The religious magazines on the coffee table don’t turn the kids on; Dad (Jason Miller) shlumps in the corner and shrugs, “I can’t complain,” to every question; and Mom (Gena Rowlands) opens the conversation with, “So, how are the roads?” (Patty, looking over her shoulder into the street: “How are the roads?“)
But Schrader’s narrative soon wanders. For a while the band hits the road, then pulls back; Patty leaves her child with Joe when she tours with a metal band; Joe loses his job at the plant, and tries his hand at songwriting.
Even the thread of rock ‘n’ roll, which ought to hold the film together, gets lost. The muddle of this movie suggests that Schrader wanted to cover too much ground at once.
The crucial problem is with Joe’s character. He’s heroically trying to keep everything from falling apart, yet he’s so generous and long-suffering that he becomes a little irritating after a while. Michael J. Fox, who’s to be lauded for choosing a serious film such as this to follow Back to the Future, clearly doesn’t have a handle on the character; he winds up staring gloomily off into space much of the time.
That, I think, is less his fault than a fundamental flaw in the script’s conception of him. With the main character a blank, Light of Day never finds its center.
Schrader’s best stroke is the casting of rocker Joan Jett as the troubled sister, who can find meaning only in the throb of music. Jett doesn’t exactly give a performance (this is her first acting experience), but she comes across with an unpolished truthfulness; her look and voice seem eerily accurate for this character.
Oh yeah, the Springsteen story—when Schrader wrote this movie some years ago, he called it Born in the U.S.A. He tried to interest Bruce Springsteen in the project, but Bruce was most interested in the title, which he appropriated for a monster song and album.
Schrader couldn’t use his original title anymore, so Springsteen wrote him a new one—and a new song to go with it. Unfortunately, the song is likely to have a longer life than the movie.
First published in the Herald, February 1987
I guess that last line is accurate, as the movie isn’t out on DVD. Springsteen’s song is awesome, a simple three-chord beast that became an epic work-out for his live shows (and it’s all the better because it sort of sounds like something a bar band might come up with in an inspired moment). The movie’s got a nice final sequence with the song; I wonder if the rest of it holds up at all.