St Elmo’s Fire is possibly the defining ‘Brat Pack’ movie. Featuring a whole host of attractive, twenty-something hot-in-the-1980’s US actors, it features a cracking soundtrack and doesn’t require a huge amount of brainpower to watch it. In a nutshell it’s a coming of age piece – following the lives of a group of friends as they make the transition from studying to the world of work, something which all of them are struggling with in different ways, even if they won’t admit it to themselves or anybody else.
When the film starts we are straight away introduced to the whole gang of Georgetown University graduates: Kirby ‘Kirbo’ Keager (Emilio Estevez), Kevin Dolenz (Andrew McCarthy), Julianna ‘Jules’ van Patten (Demi Moore), Leslie Hunter (Ally Sheedy) and Alec Newbury (Judd Nelson). See? The ultimate 80’s cast!
Billy (Rob Lowe – oh yes, it just gets better…) and Wendy (Mare Winningham) have been in a car crash, and their friends are waiting at the local hospital to check on their condition. Both are ok, but the cause of the crash is attributed to Billy’s drink driving – and so we find out that he’s a bit of a lad (ok, so it’s an American film so we’ll call him a ‘frat boy’ and pretend we all know what that means) who is freefalling from his role as a husband and new dad. Before they leave Kirby spies Dale, a med student who he went to college with; it’s clear he feels something for her.
Alec is an aspiring politician (although he has no party loyalty, and is on the verge of switching so he can claim a more lucrative job). He’s in a relationship with the pretty and successful Leslie; perfect for the clean-cut image that he needs to cultivate in public, but he confesses to Kevin that he can’t stop having one-night stands (although most of them don’t stretch as far as the whole night). Jules’ fashionable lifestyle - which includes spending, partying, married men and drug-taking – is a disguise to mask the little girl inside who is crying out for attention from her father. Kevin is an anxiety-ridden writer whose monastic lifestyle has Jules wondering if he is in fact gay (this theory is based mainly on him being the only male she knows who hasn’t come on to her at any point), although we later find out that Kevin is actually in love with somebody, but nobody knows who.
Billy – well, Billy is a mess. He’s just lost a job that Alec had got for him and whilst at the groups’ regular hang-out, St. Elmo’s Bar, he attacks the man that he sees with his wife, even though their relationship is effectively over anyway. Wendy is quiet, innocent and caring, and in love with Billy, although she knows he would be no good for her. Her rich parents are desperate for her to settle down into the family business with their choice of good man, but Wendy loves her job as a social worker and is desperate not to get trapped into a life she feels wouldn’t belong to her. Over the course of the film she tries to explain to her mum and dad that she wants her own place to live, and to be able to choose who she falls in love with, even if that is the unsuitable Billy.
Kirby is probably the least angst-ridden of the group, but he goes on an obsessive journey of his own whilst chasing after Dale, who he has been in love with since they were at college together. After an aborted lunch when Dale gets called away before they’ve even started eating, Kirby takes advantage of his boss’ absence to throw a party at his house (and you know the sort I’m talking about – in the US they call it a house, but in UK terms it’s a mansion…). It’s an interesting bash; Alec announces his and Leslie’s engagement without consulting her first – she tells him she knows he’s having affairs and they break up, with Alec accusing Kevin of breaking his confidence before hitting him. It wasn’t actually Kevin that spilt the beans and Leslie tells Alec that it was ‘just a hunch…until now.’
Leslie goes to stay with Kevin, and discovers that she is the object of his well-hidden affections. Obviously this means that they then have to sleep together; something Alec is fairly shocked about when he turns up at Kevin’s in the morning to apologise for lamping him one. There follows a vitriolic ‘separating the stuff’ encounter which involves fighting over the record collection and hurling insults.
Billy makes a drunken pass at Jules after she gives him a lift home from the party, which upsets her as she had been about to open her heart to him, and somewhat annoys Billy’s wife, who watches it all from her front porch. It signals the end for their relationship.
Kirby has been on his own little road trip. Dale didn’t show up at his party, and he ends up tracking her down (read: stalking her) to a ski lodge where he is forced to spend a slightly embarrassing night with both her AND her square-jawed boyfriend. It’s not all bad for poor Kirby however; he does manage to steal a kiss from Dale just before he leaves the next morning.
Jule’s bad luck heads rapidly towards a climax as a finance company come round to claim all her belongings, and her friends discover that she actually got sacked from her job three weeks previously, and she has since then been pretending that she still had work to go to. They all race round to her apartment to find that she’s in the grip of a breakdown, and has barricaded herself inside her now empty apartment, with all the windows wide open in freezing temperatures. After Alec and Kevin nearly come to blows again (yep, now’s the time to focus on yourselves guys), Billy finally breaks the door down and comforts Jules by showing her the comparison between her problems, and St Elmo’s Fire; i.e. that they’re a temporary illusion and she’ll come through them. She listens, and allows her friends to rally round. How handy that a near mental collapse can be overcome so easily by a hunky friend and a whimsical tale.
Once the high drama is over, it’s time for the obvious dénouement; the short scene where each character quickly sums up their future plans for our benefit. Billy is divorcing and off to New York to become a professional musician and Wendy now has her own place. (Billy and Wendy spend time together before he goes - nudge, nudge, wink, wink.) Kevin and Alec become buddies again, whilst Leslie decides she is going to be single for the time being. I’m surprised Kevin at least didn’t poke her in the eye after that little announcement.
At the very end the remaining friends decide to go for brunch, but pass over St Elmo’s for another bar as there are ‘not so many kids’. See the symbolism? Do you? Do you see it? They’ve finally made the journey into adulthood – they’re ready to get really drunk in more grown up bars now!
St. Elmo’s Fire received its fair share of negative reviews (and Rob Lowe received a Worst Supporting Actor Razzie award for his portrayal of Billy) when it was released, with criticism levelled mainly at the spoilt and several-dimensions-short-of-being-well-rounded characters (most of them come from affluent families) thinking that their mostly self-inflicted problems are more important than anything else. This is all well and good but what the critics were largely forgetting was that it was a film filled with beautiful people, a fun (if pointless) plot and fabulous 80s music. If you were looking for real life gritty realism then you’d be disappointed (and you'd be better off watching the new BBC soap Eastenders which started in 1985, the same year this film was released), but if you just wanted to stare at some lovely faces and hear a few saxophone solos then you definitely had the right film.
Join in now everyone…’du du du du…man in motion…du du du du…pair of wheels, la la la la la la laaaa la…St. Elmo’s Fire…’ Don’t worry, nobody else knows the words to this either.