The first time I saw Hearts of Fire (1987) was, surprisingly, on a big screen. For a film which tanked in London and was deemed not worthy of theatrical release in the United States this is definitely surprising.
But there was a guy at the Gold Coast Theatre when I lived and worked there who would put on some very odd choices of current and classic movies and one of them was Hearts of Fire.
I joked with him beforehand that it was probably a poor choice and wouldn’t make the cinema screenings very popular but he insisted the film wasn’t as bad as its reputation and I should give it a go – so I did!
Well, it’s hard to remember my first reaction, but I liked it enough to grab a second-hand copy on VHS a few years later and, having already scored a review soundtrack at work which was at least remotely quite good – so began a love affair with this movie that continues to this day.
Actor Rupert Everett (1959-) said in his book Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins, that his character James Colt in the movie – he with the enormous mullet and apparent monobrow – was a take-off of his friend John Taylor from British 1980s pop band Duran Duran. You know, the one that was named after a character in Barbarella (1968).
Everett thought, despite some of the worst reviews of his life, he was “really quite good” and he is… He does a passable job at singing and a good job at staying upright despite polishing off several bottles of vodka.
James Colt hadn’t written a song in two years when we’re introduced to him and when he tells his producer, in rather colourful language, that his latest overproduced album “doesn’t work”, he may well be talking to his agent: “You just can’t force me into this, it isn’t there!”
So is the rather clichéd script to Hearts of Fire. It tells the story of a young, budding female rocker who plays bars at night while earning a living during the day working in a tollbooth. One night, former star and now chicken farmer, Bob Dylan, turns up and eventually gets up on stage with her. He invites her to go to London with him. Well he is a “dirty old man” according to star Fiona Flanagan who plays the young rocker and she goes along after first turning him down. When she gets to London, she bumps into James Colt, who she greets with “Hiiiiii James” asking him for an autograph which he refuses.
Of course, its not long before she and Dylan are staying at his mansion after flying there in his helicopter. There is a kind of love triangle… and there we have it, complete with Fiona becoming a big star with the song Hearts of Fire and the surprise of Dylan and Everett appearing on stage during her first major concert. And they said it couldn’t happen to you!
Everett called the film the “full-on, no survivors crash of his career.”
Fiona as she is billed, ran screaming from the bed during their sex scene when Everett revealed he was gay and sharing house with a man, which was probably not surprising as it was the height of the AIDS epidemic and its associated paranoia. She had to be coaxed back to the set.
To Everett, Dylan was a hero and he said the singer never said a bad word about anyone on set… and barely a word at all. A good listener, he watched and let nothing escape him. The singing legend would keep odd hours, sleeping for a few, then getting up for a few, before sleeping some more.
Everett guessed he did the film to stay connected to the outside world rather than live in an ivory tower… It was part of the creative process in an era when the Dylan albums of the 1980s were considered ordinary to poor.
Apparently Dylan had trouble remembering his lines in Hearts of Fire. Everett thought the Joe Ezterhas script “inane” as Dylan floundered as he was obviously winging it without having really learnt his lines. What this must have been doing to director Richard Marquand I will report later.
In one scene when Fiona and Dylan arrive at a London hotel, Dylan asks: “Where’s the Jim Beam?” to which the middle-aged hotel bell-boy says: “I’ll see if he’s arrived.” Apparently Jim Beam was one of Dylan’s favourite tipples.
By the time the shoot had moved from London to Toronto for the stadium performance scene…. Dylan was so drunk with Everett, he had to be helped on stage. Meanwhile a stressed Marquand by now on a short fuse and using a walking stick due to a crippling pain in his leg – was it gout? – when he saw the two girls help Dylan on stage he threw away his stick and his face went purple.
The next day with both Marquand and the studio executives enraged, the pair of actors were given a headmaster like lecture and the concert scene was reshot without the girls, who incidentally were hair and make-up workers on the shoot.
Dylan didn’t go to the “bloodbath” of a premiere in London and the film brought Everett’s career to a standstill.
As for Marquand (1937-87 stroke), he died before the film’s release. One report said he had a stroke and collapsed at his home south of London, while Everett’s book reports he was getting out of his car at Heathrow where he was meeting his daughter and collapsed with a heart attack, dying in the ambulance on the way to hospital. The former seems more likely as he died at his local hospital a week after his stroke, his family possibly pulling the plug as he must have been brain dead.
Yes, Marquand was killed by Hearts of Fire! The possibly heavy drinking Liverpool Football Club supporter and there are reports that it was how he got to know Dylan over a number of drinks. I have no idea if he was a smoker. Anyway, he died in England but is buried in Los Angeles at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills. It all happened only a few weeks before his 50th birthday and before Hearts of Fire opened and got absolutely trashed by critics. Perhaps the poor man died of shame before he could be absolutely ridiculed. Hey, but it ain’t that bad!
Why he’s buried in L.A. most of you probably already know. Director Marquand did stage and television. He won a couple of Emmys in the 1970s and directed the semi-decent horror movie The Legacy (1978). The most memorable scene for me in that movie is when The Who singer Roger Daltrey chokes on what I think is an invisible chicken bone. Marquand did direct the excellent World War II thriller Eye of the Needle (1981). This drew the attention of producer/director George Lucas who was after a director for Return of the Jedi (1983) after The Empire Strikes Back (1981) director Irvin Kershner (1923-2010 lung cancer) became unavailable.
Marquand said: “I never really inquired why Lucas wanted me. I suppose he was looking for a younger generation filmmaker who could work quickly and didn’t have an ego problem. You can’t be an auteur when you direct a Star Wars. You have to be able to work very closely with Lucas.”
But as it turned out, Marquand never really got to grips with Jedi from the beginning and so “George came and he never left. George was on his shoulder the whole time.” This is according to co-producer Robert Watts.
Furthermore, Lucas didn’t like Marquand’s original edit and took over editing duties.
Marquand said all his films were from the heart, which may indicate why there is such a cuteness factor in Jedi, particularly the ending, which has been re-edited and changed over the years since I saw the original version at a preview when I was about sixeen years old. With the Ewoks singing and the ghosts waving before the credits, I don’t think that version exists anymore – it has been erased from history by Lucas except for the few who may own the original first release VHS. But then I don’t blame him as I remember mocking the ending as a cynical teenager – so no wonder!
“I guess I’m a very romantic person,” continued Marquand in an interview. “I think the values I hold aren’t necessarily intellectual values… they have something to do with trust, loyalty and friendship – that kind of thing.”
While there is a certain romance in The Legacy – well almost – and a twisted one of sorts in Eye of the Needle between a Nazi and a lonely woman, the murder mystery Jagged Edge which Marquand directed in 1985 is hardly a romance either. However, Hearts of Fire may contain some of the romance Marquand was talking about but its hardly classical as Fiona loves the two famous singers in her life… and a few of her songs are heartfelt…
Despite the critics calling the performances in Hearts of Fire atrocious, Marquand was described as an actor’s director. Certainly the performances he got from Eye of the Needle stars Donald Sutherland (1935-) and Kate Nelligan (1950-) were top notch.
“I think a lot of actors recognise sympathy in me for them. It doesn’t necessarily get a good performance or movie.” The credentials for this interview seem real but I’m smelling a bit of bull.
Which can be said of Hearts of Fire… as for turning purple with rage… the stars disappointed Marquand by getting drunk without him. It certainly wasn’t a dry set!
And Carrie Fisher complained Marquand didn’t treat her or Mark Hamill well on the Jedi set. Maybe she was high on cocaine at the time? Who knows?! Hamill however said he had no problem with Marquand.
In one interview Marquand said he was planning a big sci-fi in the vein of Blade Runner and Alien after he was to make Jagged Edge. But he was no Ridley Scott and we had to settle for Hearts of Fire instead, something which was hidden from the Americans after Marquand was buried there a month or so earlier.
As the lead in the film, Fiona Flanagan was an inexperienced actress with a Miami Vice episode under her belt and three albums. Her performance remains naïve but it is all the more endearing for that. The almond-eyed beauty with the flowing locks is still recording today after a long hiatus, although I don’t recall her ever acting again after Hearts of Fire. While the ending of the film is ideal and yet perhaps a little far-fetched, it is hard to know who wrote what as it was apparently re-written by Joe Eszterhas after it was deemed the original writer was not well known or experienced enough.
Eszterhas had hits such as Flashdance and Jagged Edge on his resume and it was his connection to the latter which Marquand helmed which probably led to Hearts of Fire. Incidentally, I wrote to Eszterhas’ publisher after reading and congratulating him on one of his books and received a Christmas card from the writer. Sadly, someone stole it!
The writer survived the Hearts of Fire debacle and penned Basic Instinct (1992) before another debacle with the much more entertaining Showgirls (1995).
As for Dylan, he seems to be playing himself – if that’s what he’s like – and the film is a must see for his fans, although I know some were disappointed when he didn’t strip for a skinny dipping scene. There is a theatre in the background of one scene showing Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) in which Dylan appeared.
Mick Jagger is said to have been the first choice for the role, but the singer was more interested in a lacklustre solo career and had abandoned any pretensions of acting long ago. In fact, it was around this time of Jagger’s solo release that I saw Hearts of Fire and Jagger appeared on the cover of an issue of Rolling Stone which stated that he had become “more disciplined”. I had to cover his arrival at Brisbane airport for his Aussie tour and used the line as he emerged from the arrival gate with then girlfriend Jerry Hall on his arm.
“What will we see from the new, disciplined Mick Jagger?,” I asked, as the throng of journalists followed his quick departure from the airport to an awaiting limousine.
“A bit of un-disciplined-ness,” tossed off Jagger, inimitably.
Wow, I actually swapped sentences with a Rolling Stone! But now I’m name-dropping!! The picture and the line made the front page, one of the few I had.
Anyway, Dylan looks rather drained of his bodily fluids as he gives us a rendition of John Hiatt’s (1952-) The Usual and even contributes a couple of original compostions – he was supposed to deliver four.
There is also the classic line delivered by Dylan in the movie: “Yeah, I guess I’ve always known I was never one of them rock’n’roll singers that was gonna win any Nobel Prize…” Of course the singer won one in 2016.
That Marquand garnered no respect for his swansong, despite dying after completing it, it goes to show that taste in the 1980s could sometimes be in its mouth. The soundtrack had no hit material, the script was clichéd, but Fiona was perfectly lacking in experience and while many say Everett was woefully miscast, who else but the gay Everett to sing the song Tainted Love at the beginning.
Dylan says in disguise as a biker at the beginning of the film about Everett/Colt: “He sucks.” The truth is Hearts of Fire doesn’t suck, it’s the reverse, it’s an all day sucker, one you can put down at the end of the day and maybe pick up the next day. Or maybe not!? As one rocker says creepily through a door in the film: “I like sweeties. I like to suck ‘em!” And Shot of Love wasn’t that bad an 80s Dylan album either!