Some time around the mid-‘90s I took a weekly screenwriting class for a while, and the teacher loved Paul Schrader. He seemed to bring him up in every class. The guy who wrote TAXI DRIVER. The guy with the strict Calvinist upbringing. Eventually he had us watch a Paul Schrader movie, and he chose LIGHT OF DAY – the one where Michael J. Fox plays in a rock band with Joan Jett. I had seen it before and I didn’t dislike it but I thought it was a weird choice to represent Schrader. I think maybe the teacher hadn’t seen it yet.
But, you know, after THE CARD COUNTER last year and finally watching LIGHT SLEEPER this year I was kinda high on Schrader and thought it might be worth going back to this one to see if there was something I was missing. Well, no, not really, but that’s okay. It’s not in the vein of those ones I just mentioned and it’s not as powerful or as distinctly Paul Schrader, but I don’t think anybody else would’ve made exactly this rock ’n roll movie.
I used to think of it as corny because it’s a rock star acting and a sitcom star rocking, but what’s cool about it is that it’s thoroughly working class. It’s about a band, but it’s never about the record label guy is coming to the showcase and it’s their big chance and they write a hit and they get the cover of Rolling Stone but then it’s the pressures of fame or whatever. No, they’re just a small band that plays at a little tavern in Cleveland called the Euclid (“the Euc” for short) and they try to keep that gig or set up a small tour or play in a different band that will pay better. They do pull a pretty good crowd for the size of the place, but they’re not famous. Nobody knows who they are. And they gotta have jobs.
I like how the opening credits cut from the band rehearsing to each of them in their daily lives. Singer/guitarist Patti Rasnick (Joan Jett in her acting debut) exchanges bags of aluminum cans for deposits with her son Benji (Billy L. Sullivan, STEEL FRONTIER, TANK GIRL). Her brother Joe (Michael J. Fox, CLASS OF 1984, ”in his first dramatic outing in a feature film”) also plays guitar in the band, and we see him working at a factory with bassist Bu (Michael McKean, D.A.R.Y.L.), manufacturing dinner trays with pictures of royals on them – an absolutely perfect detail. Keyboard player Gene (Michael Dolan, LIBERACE: BEHIND THE MUSIC) works at County Seat (“The Jean Store”). The drummer, Billy (Paul J. Harkins), is still in high school, drawing drums on his desk and air drumming as he walks around.
According to the press kit, the music is all performed live by the actors and not overdubbed. As part of their preparation Schrader had them play two unadvertised gigs at Cleveland bars. Fox says people recognized Jett but thought he was some guitarist who looked like Michael J. Fox.
One of the only things I remembered about the movie was still kind of my favorite part: there’s a whole thing about stealing tools. For some reason Patti knows about this couple having some tools that she could steal and sell to buy a mixing board they want (they always call it “the Peavey”). They sit in a car on the street and stake the house out, but Bu and Joe don’t like the idea and leave. On another day Patti shows up really late for the gig and they’re annoyed to have to start without her, but she makes a dramatic entrance through the crowd to join them, gives Joe a mischievous smile and pulls up her jacket to show him a wrench tucked into her waistband.
I don’t get why they need their own mixing board to play live (don’t the clubs have their own?) but I figure Jett would’ve said something if it didn’t make sense. (Also Schrader hung out with a band called the Generators for research.) It’s also unclear how they’ve picked this specific target or who she sells the tools to. But I like that about it – it feels almost too random to not be based on a real story. I don’t think I’ve seen another “stealing tools” movie. Then the next day Joe gets threatened in the restroom by a co-worker named Smittie (Thomas G. Waites, “Windows” from THE THING) who’s the brother-in-law of the guy who owned the tools, immediately knew it had to have been Joe and his sister who took them, and deals with it by demanding to be paid. Joe claims not to know anything about it, but quickly agrees to pay him back, so he has to go borrow money from their mom Jeanette (Gena Rowlands, NIGHT ON EARTH, TAKING LIVES). I just like the pathetic small-timeness of the whole affair.
That’s Joe’s job – the family facilitator. His Mom knows this means Patti fucked something up again, and has to get some digs in. Joe tries to play it down. He also has to convince Patti to visit Mom on her birthday, and it quickly turns into a fight when Mom passive aggressively insults her through the medium of prayer. There has clearly been a long history of Mom lecturing about Jesus and rock ’n roll, and Patti refuses to put up with it anymore. But Joe’s the guy who goes out to the car to try to talk her out of leaving, and then the one who goes back in to Mom to make an excuse when she does. He seems to understand most of the reasons Patti feels this way, but only knows to try to calm them both down, not to take his sister’s side.
When Joe gets laid off from the factory they decide “we’re a road band now” and go on tour, which gets them some money, but not much. The siblings have a falling out over more “creative borrowing” – Patti shoplifts steaks as a treat for the band. After the tour Patti joins a more popular band called The Hunzz (she gets to wear facepaint and flashier clothes, which suits her) and Joe acts as surrogate father to “Benj,” as he calls him, plays acoustic guitar and writes songs with him. (Benji is often wearing Voltron pajamas and playing with a Voltron toy, so I wish his lyrics were about Voltron. You’re supposed to write what you know.)
Apparently Schrader has said that Jett was good but miscast. I was surprised to read that, because I feel like she’s the main attraction here – musically, obviously, but also dramatically. She seems like a natural, whether or not the character was similar to her in real life. Schrader has also said this is his movie about his mom, so I guess maybe there was something personal he wanted in the character that we wouldn’t be looking for.
For me Fox is the harder one to accept, though I choose to roll with it. This was his next movie after BACK TO THE FUTURE and TEEN WOLF. Even as Marty McFly he’s supposed to be cooler than I think he is, but here he dresses tough and wears a dangly earring. He sits around reading Penthouse with his dirt-covered bare feet kicked up on the coffee table. Real salt of the earth type individual. It’s also just funny hearing him do his musician shop talk, like calling another band “techno pop metal,” trying to talk Bu out of joining The No Exits because “They’re a top 40 band, you might as well be working at the factory,” or describing a band called The Problems as “concept rock.”
Do you recognize anyone in that picture? The Problems were portrayed by a real Cleveland band called Exotic Birds. Here’s the historic moment when motherfuckin Joan Jett glances over at 22-year-old Exotic Birds member Trent Reznor setting up his keyboards:
So at least two musicians in this movie about workaday small timers eventually returned to Cleveland to be inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame.
LIGHT OF DAY seems more real to me than another movie about a bar band, RICKI AND THE FLASH, though if I had to pick I prefer the latter. Tonally they’re very different, but I relate to how they show these people who are small timers in their chosen fields, but appreciated by a small group, and they love and take pride in what they do, whether or not normal people understand it. They both have singers who kind of blew it at parenting, and that’s not me, but I think I sort of passively ended up in the same place of choosing the art over a normal family life, at least as far as having kids. I don’t regret it, but I occasionally worry about what it says about me, and very occasionally what others may think it says about me. But it’s too late, because that’s my life.
So I like when Patti says corny shit like, “I’ve been trying to live my life by an idea… rock ’n roll is an idea,” and “I go up there every night just to hear the beat. That’s all there is, man.” Live my life a verse at a time. I believe that. But also you gotta be mad at her for leaving her son behind to be in the Hunzz. That’s indefensible.
We learn more about where she’s coming from, and everything kind of comes together, when their mom starts to get sick. Joe notices her being confused and finds out that their dad (Jason Miller, TOY SOLDIERS) has been seeing signs of dementia for a while. Soon they find she’s dying of ovarian cancer. Joe goes and finds Patti at a show and they strut into the hospital, her in her rock ’n roll uniform. All the swagger to face something much scarier than a crowd. Something besides the beat.
I suppose this is a melodrama, because we get the convenience of Patti and her mom somewhat making up just before she dies. There is at least an admission of guilt, I think – “Sometimes a person can be very stupid” – and some tears. The lack of eloquence and a certain amount of ambiguity about how well Patti is taking it makes it easier to buy, and more moving. And Mom doesn’t give up being controlling – she wants Patti to make sure her dad remarries, which seems kind until she adds, “I have two women in mind.”
Their dad is a pretty lightly sketched character, but a very effective one. There’s a quick shot of him in the house alone, not knowing what to do with himself now, that really got me. Also a little detail where he sets Jeanette’s watch when she’s in her coffin.
Yeah, I can’t lie. I kinda like the Michael J. Fox rock band movie. That teacher wasn’t wrong.
1. This is the most famous bit of trivia about this movie, but I have to mention it: Schrader wanted Bruce Springsteen to star. Springsteen wasn’t interested in acting, but after having the script sitting on his coffee table for a while he used its original title, BORN IN THE U.S.A., for the chorus of a song he’d been working on. Later he wrote the LIGHT OF DAY title song to repay Schrader.
2. I spotted Michael Rooker in a tiny role as the bartender Oogie. It’s his second movie, after HENRY: PORTRAIL OF A SERIAL KILLER!
3. For some reason this never came out on DVD (or streaming/digital?) in the U.S. I had to watch an import and it was not a great transfer. Maybe it’s a music rights thing. The soundtrack also seems to be out of print and expensive.