Paul Schrader’s aimless rock and roll melodrama doesn’t quite measure up to the quality of his previous films, and there’s no one who would agree with that more than the man himself. Schrader has been open about his dissatisfaction with the lead casting choices for Light of Day, as well as with choices he made to suppress his visual style. "Maybe I took too long," he says in retrospect. "When I was first ready to make it, I think I would have had more urgency. But I came back to it five years later, and the fire I had was gone. I was still under the thrall of Springsteen."
The thrall he’s referring to dates back to his original screenplay entitled “Born in the U.S.A.,” which he had written at the request of Paramount Pictures for Bruce Springsteen to star in. While the musician had agreed to write a song for the film, he declined the role and never actually bothered to read the script Schrader sent him. What he did bother to do, however, was use Schrader’s title for a little song he was working on at the time and, well, we all know how that story ends. When the project was resurrected with the casting Michael J. Fox – who had reached massive popularity on Family Ties and had just completed Back to the Future – Springsteen repaid Schrader by composing the title track for the feature now known as Light of Day. Schrader cast rock and roll rebel Joan Jett in the role originally intended for The Boss and the rest, as they say, is history.
The premise of Light of Day, for those who don’t know, follows siblings Joe and Patti Rasnick (Fox and Jett) as they struggle to make ends meet playing local dives around Cleveland with their band The Barbusters. Patti’s existence is fueled by music, to the point where her ambitions start to distract her from the care of her son, Benji (Billy Sullivan). Joe, on the other hand, is the responsible one. A factory worker by day, he prides himself on being there for both his family and the band. Dealing with the disapproval of their deeply religious parents (Gena Rowlands and Jason Miller), Joe is forced to play referee in the constant battles between his mother and sister. While he admires Patti’s carefree spirit, he has a hard time standing up to her, except when it means protecting four-year-old Benji. When the band goes their separate ways in search of more lucrative opportunities, Patti dives straight into another gig that takes her on the road, leaving Joe behind to pick up the pieces and create a stable environment for his nephew. When a family crisis brings Patti back home, she’s forced to confront her past and the issues with her mother.
Despite Schrader’s displeasure with some of the cast, everyone in Light of Day gets at least one moment to shine. Of course, it’s the exceptional Gena Rowlands who leaves the strongest impression. Although she isn’t given much room in the script to move beyond the pious and pushy mother, the subtle changes in her tone and physical presence manage to inspire empathy for Jeanette Rasnick. One minute she’s coldly accusing Patti of being a bad mother, and the next she looks so fragile and put-upon by her daughter that you feel sorry for her. It’s this complexity that makes you question her motives at the end of the film. Having been diagnosed with terminal cancer, there’s a scene between mother and daughter in the hospital where she speaks of forgiveness and even goes so far as to tell Patti she’s her favorite child. It’s a touching moment, but Rowlands leaves you wondering if dear old mom was being sincere or if she was using the opportunity to manipulate her rebellious daughter one last time.
Joan Jett manages to hold her own in these scenes with Rowlands, but it’s obvious she’s more comfortable on stage with the band than she is delivering dialogue. Meanwhile, Fox holds his own playing guitar with the band, but his best moments occur with the family, as he tries desperately to be the glue that holds everyone together. While the young star had hoped the role would lead to more dramatic opportunities, his boyish looks and wholesome demeanor prevented him from being taken seriously as the tough guy rock and roller. His chemistry with Jett is another aspect that doesn’t quite hit the mark, making them feel more like a couple than brother and sister. Their chemistry on stage, however, doesn’t miss a beat, making you wish Schrader had incorporated more moments between the band. Last year at the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards, Fox and Jett surprised the crowd by reuniting on stage to perform the film’s title track together for the first time in over thirty years.
The music scene set against the blue-collar Cleveland backdrop appears to be the premise Schrader intended to focus on. Unfortunately, it’s a thread that seems to have gotten lost in translation when he was forced to rework the screenplay after losing Springsteen. Regardless, the musical contribution from The Boss is catchy enough to get stuck in your head and it’s become a live favorite for him as well as Joan Jett. While Schrader may have never gotten over the loss of Springsteen, he unknowingly snagged another soon to be well-known artist who appears briefly as a member of a band called The Problems at Cleveland’s Euclid Tavern:
The young Trent Reznor was only two years away from launching his band Nine Inch Nails and gaining industrial rock god status with the album Pretty Hate Machine. His success story, interestingly enough, proves it’s possible for struggling bands like those depicted in the film to make it beyond the local dives of Cleveland. For NIN fans, these few seconds alone make Light of Day a must-see. Left to my own devious devices, this edition of Say Something Nice could have easily read: Trent Reznor is in it! The end.
Given the talent behind and in front of the camera, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what went wrong with Light of Day. Overall it never quite reaches the level of greatness we’ve come to expect from a writer like Schrader. The obvious answer is that he lost his passion for the project when faced with reevaluating his vision. Yet despite his disappointments over what could have been, the film still manages to entertain. It’s even evolved into a rare cinematic gem, purely because it incorporates such a motley cast of talents. From Gena Rowlands and Michael J. Fox to Joan Jett and Trent Reznor, Schrader’s cast goes above and beyond the task of replacing Bruce Springsteen.