On paper, the movie Light of Day seemed like a surefire hit.
Released in theaters on Feb. 6, 1987, the film featured strong starring performances from Michael J. Fox and rocker Joan Jett, plus dynamic support from Michael McKean and Gena Rowlands.
At the time, Fox wasn’t just starring on the popular sitcom Family Ties. He was a teen heartthrob coming off back-to-back movie hits with 1985’s Back to the Future and 1987’s Teen Wolf. Jett, meanwhile, was also on an upswing. Among other things, she was fresh off 1986’s Good Music, which featured her cover of the Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner.”
The film’s theme, “Light of Day,” was also appealing. Written by then-red-hot Bruce Springsteen and sung in the movie by Jett and Fox, the song was a bar-band rave-up with teeth.
Watch Joan Jett and Michael J. Fox Perform ‘Light of Day’
Light of Day stars Fox and Jett as siblings Joe and Patti Rasnick, who perform together in a Cleveland rock band, the Barbusters. Patti is juggling burgeoning musical stardom with being a single mom to a five-year-old son, Benji, and a tense relationship with her religious mother (Rowlands). The balance is rough to come by: On a particularly tough regional tour, Patti shoplifts steaks by smuggling them out of the store via Benji, which angers Joe. At another point, she and her mom clash angrily over her parenting style.
Writer and director Paul Schrader based the script on a real Cleveland band, the Generators. As he said in a 1986 press conference held in the city, the idea for the movie dated back to 1980, when he called up WMMS DJ Kid Leo and “asked him if he could set me up with a bar band in Cleveland that did original material that was good, but whose chances of breaking out were not that strong.”
“He said that the best group working at that time was the Generators, so I came here and hung around with them for a period of week. It was from that experience that the script was first written.”
The Generators featured a musician named Mark Addison, who ended up appearing in Light of Day. He and two members of a popular Cleveland synth-pop band the Exotic Birds—Frank Vale and a then-unknown Trent Reznor—portrayed a fictional band called the Problems.
Watch Trent Reznor Perform in Light of Day
That wasn’t the only local touch. Although the movie was filmed in Illinois and Indiana, scenes of Cleveland’s industrial areas dominated. The city’s skyline and legendary dive bar venue the Euclid Tavern also made multiple appearances. Gritty musical flourishes also abounded: Patti tries out for a metal band called the Hunzz by singing Aerosmith‘s “Sweet Emotion,” while the Fabulous Thunderbirds appear as themselves during a live concert scene.
Yet Light of Day is far more than just a movie about a struggling band trying to make things happen. Patti eventually goes to sing for the Hunzz, which coincides with her relinquishing responsibility for Benji due to her unsteady lifestyle. At the same time, her mom’s memory issues reveal a terminal cancer diagnosis, which culminates in a moving deathbed conversation between Patti and her mother.
Although critics were split on the film’s merits, Roger Ebert, for one, appreciated the nuance. “Jett, the movie’s one certified rocker, gives the most surprisingly good performance,” he wrote in a three-and-a-half-star review. “In the bedside scene with Rowlands, she is acting in the big leagues; Rowlands is inspired and Jett rises to the same inspiration, and there’s a rare, powerful chemistry.”
Yet despite this strong performance from Jett and an equally good one from Fox, the movie grossed just $3.54 million its first week in theaters and only $10.49 million overall. The culprit seemed to be focus, which Ebert observed.
“At first the film seems to be a blue-collar story,” he wrote. “Then a family drama. Then a rock ‘n’ roll movie. But then we see the rock band is going nowhere, and the center of the story turns back to the family, after the mother becomes seriously ill.”
The result, Ebert noted, was an uneven end product. “Indeed the movie’s one fault is that it sometimes seems without a clear direction,” the critic observed.
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