My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were financial flops, critical failures, or lack a substantial cult following.
With the possible exception of The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain, and Frank Sinatra, no musician’s life has been documented, celebrated, or monetized as exhaustively as Bob Dylan’s. For over a half century, Dylan has been one of our most beloved and influential musicians. It’s almost impossible to overstate his impact, not just on pop music, but American culture as a whole.
Dylan has a fan base so rabid they make Phish fans and Juggalos seem casual by comparison. The recent release of a box set of unreleased songs, outtakes, rehearsals, and alternate versions (Best Of The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Volume 12) attracted more attention than most new releases from major contemporary artists. I suspect that if someone were to release a handsomely illustrated coffee-table book doggedly chronicling every sandwich Dylan consumed between 1966 and 1967, plenty of obsessives would rush to purchase a handsomely bound first edition, no matter the cost.
Yet somehow this preeminent icon, this poet laureate of American music, managed to make a movie in the 1980s directed by Richard Marquand (who helmed Return Of The Jedi) and written by Joe Eszterhas (whose obnoxious public persona and equally obnoxious screenplays make him one of the most highly paid and most reviled screenwriters of all time) that seems to have disappeared from the pop-culture radar altogether. The film in question is 1987’s Hearts Of Fire, a bizarre oddity made during a particularly rocky stretch of Dylan’s musical career. The project no doubt radiated incredible promise at the time it was announced, but it only spent two weeks in European theaters and never received a theatrical release in the United States. Instead, it went direct to video after director Marquand died at 49, presumably of shame.
The film’s direct-to-video burial helps explain why this curio remains weirdly obscure and unknown despite the unlikely aggregation of talent behind it. Showgirls—Eszterhas’ biggest and most notorious flop, and also his magnum opus and true masterpiece—was the focus of controversy and debate for months before its release and has never stopped being the subject of intense fascination. Hearts Of Fire, on the other hand, was barely released on VHS. It’s entirely possible that even Dylan fans don’t know it exists.
Though posited as Bob Dylan’s Purple Rain, the film is actually an elaborate bait and switch. Dylan may be the marquee name, but the real focus of the film is on a big-haired, throaty-voiced 1980s never-was named Fiona who does most of the singing in the movie. It’s a testament to how badly the filmmakers misjudge their strengths and weaknesses that future My Best Friend’s Wedding star Rupert Everett, who I had no idea even sang, has as many songs on the soundtrack (three) as Dylan, an artist whose music has something of a following. Fiona has four songs on the soundtrack, but that doesn’t convey the extent to which the film focuses on having Fiona singing onscreen at the expense of letting the old guy with the iconic Jewfro warble a few tunes. Fiona doing most of the singing in Hearts Of Fire is a little like making a version of Purple Rain that showcases the talents of Wendy & Lisa and maybe lets Prince sing a song or two as long as he doesn’t mind lurking sullenly in the background while his bandmates hog the spotlight.
In the performance that launched her to anonymity, Fiona stars as Molly, a plucky 18-year-old in the small town of Dunston, Pennsylania, who works in a tollbooth where most of her job consists of resisting the leering advances of creeps in cars. At night, she pursues her dreams of rock stardom in a modest combo her bandmates abandon when they get a much sweeter gig as the house band at a local Holiday Inn.
Molly’s life is going nowhere and is taking its sweet time getting there. Her only joy in life is listening to rock ’n’ roll music on a giant tape recorder—until one day she meets reclusive rock legend Billy Parker (Dylan) at a bar. Her sad little life goes from black and white to Technicolor when Parker offers to take her with him on an oldie’s tour of Great Britain. Hearts Of Fire depicts Parker as a burnt-out, deeply cynical, and scarred survivor who has turned his back on stardom and receded into the life of a semi-recluse, which in this film puzzlingly involves traveling around the world to perform regularly as both a solo artist and Molly’s guitarist, and showing up at press conferences to support Molly. To convey Parker’s disgust at the machinery and phoniness of the rock world, the film has him hurl a television out of a hotel window in disgust after watching the press conference.
In England, Molly runs across her other favorite musician, James Colt (Rupert Everett, with a mullet), a New Wave amalgamation of Gary Numan, Marc Almond, and every other effete British man who wore too much makeup and employed too many synthesizers during the Reagan/Thatcher era. After first brushing off Molly’s request for an autograph, Colt decides that she’s both his personal and professional future, and becomes her Svengali, producer, and eventually boyfriend as she quickly and unconvincingly rockets to super-stardom due to her incredible talent and Colt’s star-making genius.
As the focus shifts to Colt and Molly’s relationship, Parker essentially wanders away from the film in the third act only to stumble grudgingly back into the narrative at the very end with all the passion and enthusiasm of someone fulfilling a professional and legal obligation. There’s a bit of a Star Is Born arc as Molly becomes massive while Parker slinks away after Colt seduces her by taking his helicopter to her hotel. She tells Colt, “You know what you are? You’re a dip!” before melting into his arms.
Early in the film, Colt talks about how his truest and most pure fan is a blind woman because she can’t see any of the theatricality and artifice of his music or gaze in awe at his mullet/ponytail combo, and can only judge him on the purity of his music, man. That passes for profundity in this oddly lethargic mess, but this blind woman ends up playing a large, unwelcome role in the film when she shows up climactically with a gun and points it in Colt’s direction before killing herself.
The filmmakers seem to imagine that the death of a character who is onscreen for maybe three minutes lends it some gravitas, but it just feels like a nonsensical distraction. The film wraps everything up by bringing all of its leads back together for a film-closing performance: Molly on vocals, Billy on guitar, Colt on keyboards, and a perpetually shirtless muscle man on drums, whose flowing locks and endlessly displayed physique makes him look like a cross between Sampson, Thor, and one of the Barbarian Brothers.
Eszterhas’ grubby little fingerprints are all over Hearts Of Fire, most notably in the leering, vulgar way it sexualizes Fiona, who is a nice-looking woman but nowhere near the irresistible sex bomb the film needs her to be. Like Showgirls and Flashdance, Hearts Of Fire occupies a world full of creepy older men who can’t stop leering and ogling the sexy striver at the film’s core. Eszterhas seems convinced that the world largely consists of horny older men enraptured by the ripe sexuality of vulnerable young women. That’s probably true of the ghoul Eszterhas is cursed to see in the mirror every morning, but he’s apparently certain the whole world is as sleazy, sex crazed, and shameless as he is.
The vulgarity arrives early and seldom lets up. When Molly approaches Parker for the first time, he writes her off with a mumbled, “Don’t you have anything better to do? I don’t get it on with groupies.” At Molly’s job as a tollbooth operator, she has to put up with creeps in fancy cars telling her things like, “One way or another, I’m going to nail your little butt.” At a press conference, a “reporter” waggles his eyebrows lasciviously and tells her, “I like what you’re wearing. It’s very suggestive.” Her outfit isn’t particularly suggestive (she is a reasonably good-looking woman, not Marilyn Monroe reincarnated), and if someone were to make a similar observation about a male musician—if they were to use their time at a press conference to say that they really love the way Justin Timberlake’s ass looks in the tight jeans he’s wearing—I suspect they would have been promptly kicked out of the press conference, if not blackballed from the profession. Molly, on the other hand, is only flattered by this creepy older man’s non-question about how he likes the way her top makes her tits look.
When Molly is struggling to record a passable take of the title song for producer Colt, he tells her, in frustration, “It doesn’t even give me a hard-on.” Bear in mind, the song she’s struggling through isn’t a salacious or sexy number, but an earnest ballad. That makes me think that maybe as a producer, Colt uses an erection-based system to judge quality of a take. If he really digs the vocals, it gives him a raging boner; if a take is only passable, then he gets at most a half-chubby. But if a take is really bad—the way Molly’s is—then I’m afraid it doesn’t even him a hard-on. Parker seems fond of weirdly sexual musical terminology as well, like when he watches a Colt recording session and sagely suggests, “Get rid of the pussy, jump the rhythm, and tune it up.” I have no idea what that means, but Eszterhas seems to believe that nonsensical vulgarity is its own reward, and needs no further justification.
Frank Sinatra was revered as a one-take actor because he was so good, and so consistent, that he could be counted upon to nail a perfect take the first time around. Dylan, on the other hand, seems to be a one-take actor in the sense that he seems too bored and disinterested to subject himself to a second take, no matter how badly the first take went. He stops just short of rolling and his eyes and continually making jerk-off motions with his hands to illustrate how little he’s invested in the film. Who could blame him? He’s Bob Dylan delivering words written by Joe Eszterhas.
Throughout, it feels like Dylan is heckling and sabotaging his own film. He delivers borderline nonsensical wisecracks with a weird double-sarcasm that suggests he’s making fun of the quips Eszterhas has written for him even as he listlessly spouts them. Dylan was reportedly supposed to write four new songs for the film, but the most he could muster was a pair of undistinguished originals and a John Hiatt cover.
Hearts Of Fire lacks the enthusiastic vulgarity that makes Showgirls such an eminently re-watchable delight. It’s shameless, sleazy, and vulgar, but oddly half-hearted and listlessly paced. It doesn’t even have the decency to be enjoyably, entertainingly bad; it’s just bad. I suspect it has been forgotten partially because it’s so hard to track down. In a world where Deadhead Miles—a never theatrically released 1973 trucker comedy written by Terrence Malick—is available at the click of a button to anyone with an Amazon Prime membership, Hearts Of Fire never even made the leap from VHS to DVD, let alone streaming.
But I also suspect that the film has been forgotten partially out of respect and deference to Dylan, who has certainly had his ups and downs but walked away from Hearts Of Fire unscathed. He was, and is, legend—and this tacky little trifle, designed as an homage to a great man but executed as a smutty insult, does not deserve to be even a minor footnote in his remarkable career.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Failure