Looking back at Joel Schumacher’s St. Elmo’s Fire

Our look back at the work of Mr Joel Schumacher arrives at his breakthrough movie: it's St Elmo's Fire...

She is the only evidence of God I have seen with the exception of the mysterious force that removes one sock from the dryer every time I do my laundry.” – Kirby

The Recap

By 1985, Joel Schumacher had a couple of moderate comedy hits under his belt, but his next movie would take a huge step away from his safe zone and focus on a coming of age story of a group of friends who would later be labelled by Hollywood as ‘The Brat Pack’.

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After graduating for college, a group of seven best friends are trying to make something of themselves in the big bad world. The group is made up of Kirby (Emilio Estevez), a waiter at St. Elmo’s Bar, a wannabe lawyer who’s obsessed with Dale Biberman (Andie MacDowell); an upperclassman who went on to be a doctor, Billy (Rob Lowe), who, although married and a father, is unable to keep a job and still dreams of his college life; Kevin (Andrew McCarthy) a depressive obituary writer who dreams of becoming something more serious and is secretly in love with Leslie, Jules (Demi Moore), a party girl who works in a bank, has a problem with cocaine and is dealing with the slow death of her step-mother; Alec (Judd Nelson) a yuppie who wants to enter politics and is constantly unfaithful to his girlfriend Leslie, Leslie (Ally Sheedy), a yuppie who wants to have her own career before getting married and having children; and Wendy (Mare Winningham), a rich girl who has dedicated her life to help those less fortunate then herself, is in love with Billy and is still a virgin.

After getting into an accident, the gang arrive at hospital to find Billy being charged for drunk driving and Wendy having minor injuries. The car is wrecked and Billy has once again lost another job lined up for him by Alec. While leaving the hospital, Kirby spots old flame Dale and is instantly infatuated with her.

The gang meet up at their usual hang-out, St. Elmo’s Bar, to discuss the night’s events, which leads to Alec dunking Billy’s head down a toilet to try and make him realise how stupid he is becoming. The following day, back at their apartment, Alec again asks Leslie to marry him and she again turns him down, wanting to become her own person before slipping into the role of wife. Alec also tells her he is thinking of working for the Republican office as it holds a better opportunity than the Democrat one.

They are interrupted by Jules who comes over to complain that she is being lumped with looking after her gravely ill step-mother, whom she names step-monster, and will probably have to pay her funeral bill. The same evening, Kirby and Kevin discuss Kirby’s love for Dale. Kevin believes love is an illusion and feels his point is proven when Billy shows up saying he cannot deal with his wife. He also later feels vindicated when Alec admits to sleeping with other women and that, until Leslie says yes, he won’t say no. Later, Kirby’s date with Dale falls through after she is called back to the hospital with an emergency.

After a shopping trip into town, Jules confronts Kevin as being gay because he never hit on her. Angered, he leaves and later runs into a local prostitute who has the exact same thoughts about him. Kevin then confesses he is in love with another woman which is why he hasn’t made a move on anybody else.

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Having lost another job, Billy ends up going to Wendy for money, having to accompany her to dinner at her parents’ house in order to get it. A strong Jewish family, they buckle at the idea that Billy and Wendy should be anything more than friends and later attempt to set her up with a man of their choice. After dinner, the two sit on the roof of the house discussing life. Wendy admits to Billy she is still a virgin and he later makes a pass at her. Enraged she asks him to leave.

Growing more concerned for her wellbeing, Wendy and Leslie confront Jules about her life, but she refuses to listen. Kirby, who thinks Dale will only be interested in him if he earns more money, takes a job for Mr. Kim, a wealthy businessman, and promptly throws a party at his house when he is out of town. Dale doesn’t attend then Kirby gives chase after her.

Meanwhile, Alec announces that he and Leslie are engaged, although she still hasn’t said yes, and she confronts him about his affairs. Angered that he thinks Kevin has told her, Alec punches him, not knowing that this is all the proof Leslie needed. That night, Kevin admits to Leslie she is the one he is in love with and the two sleep together.

Having given chase to Dale, Kirby finds her with her boyfriend at their ski lodge. Heartbroken, he tries to leave but is snowed in and must spend the night with them. The next day, as he leaves he gives her a kiss that changes her life and his obsession is finally gone.

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Jules’ life, however, is going from bad to worse. After losing her job and getting her items reposed she locks herself in her apartment, with Billy being her reluctant hero. Wendy ends up standing on her own two feet and moves into her own apartment and, as Billy decides to move to New York, the two spend the night together before he leaves.

Thoughts & Reaction

Although not a critical success at the time of its release, St. Elmo’s Fire has become one of the most well known and loved Brat Pack movies of its era, no doubt helped by the fact that a lot of the cast also were featured in John Hughes’ hugely successful The Breakfast Club and, although not in the same league as Hughes’ work, it is an enjoyable and entertaining bit of 80s filmmaking and it is the decade it is made in which defines the film itself.

Although meant to focus on the changes from college life to adulthood, the movie never really delves that deep and really only skims the surface of what it is like to become an adult. Out of the seven main characters, only one, Wendy, seems to hold down a solid job, while Alec and Leslie are yuppie wannbes without the money or power (well, not yet, anyway), while the rest of the gang seem to coast on part-time jobs and dreams. Until the end of the movie, when Jules ends up losing her furniture, you do wonder how they all seem to survive within the lifestyle they have built up for themselves, but they would shatter the illusion of the 80s which, in the words of Gordon Gekko, of Wall Street, “Greed is good.”

What does come across well in the movie, though, is the friendship between the characters and you do actually believe they have been friends for years and this holds the heart of the movie together and makes you actually care what happens to the characters and get wrapped up in their ridiculous stories.

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Cast-wise, although filled to the brim with big names stars, the acting isn’t as fantastic as you would hope. A lot of the characters feel very one dimensional with Judd Nelson’s Alec, Rob Lowe’s Billy (who won a Razzie for his role), and Demi Moore’s Jules are the worst offenders, but they are propped up by the stronger members of the cast, Ally Sheedy in  particular, who brings a bit more professionalism to the screen.

Criticism aside, though, St. Elmo’s Fire is really an enjoyable film and, like the Hughes movies of the time, if I ever see it on TV I have to sit and watch it, even if it is just to see Rob Lowe’s hair or listen to the wonderful 80s soundtrack including its super successful theme song St. Elmo’s Fire (Man In Motion) by John Parr. 

25 years on from its release, St. Elmo’s Fire is getting ready for a bit of a re-vamp, having been picked up by ABC to become a comedy series. With Schumacher on board as producer, only time will tell if the fire still burns.

St. Elmo’s Fire can be considered as Schumacher really making his mark in Hollywood, but it would be his next film that would be regarded as one of his most popular and most successful pieces of work to date. Next time I will be looking at one of my own personal favourite films of all time, The Lost Boys.

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St Elmo’s Fire Key Info:

Released: 28th June 1985Distributed By: Columbia PicturesBudget: UnknownBox Office Gross: $37,800,000Best DVD Edition: St Elmo’s Fire DVD