“Beaten By the Wind: The Forgotten Mystery Movie at the Heart of Bob Seger’s ‘American Storm’”

Editor’s Note: Soon after Nicholas Miller’s essay on retuning country music was published I received Dr. Ty Matejowsky’s pitch for an essay on movie tie-in videos and the conspicuously-absent-from-the-internet riff on one in the form of the Brian DePalma directed video for Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band’s “American Storm.” As the first thing I ever wrote for an online academic publication was about Seger’s “Old Time Rock n’ Roll,” needless to say I was interested in the topic. Let’s hope this is a continuing trend of more analysis of music and its business on The Middle Spaces to complement the usual interventions in comics studies.

In spring 1986, casual moviegoers and regular MTV viewers could be forgiven for anticipating the imminent release of a new Brian De Palma thriller featuring an impressive cast of Hollywood veterans and Oscar nominees including Scott Glenn, Lesley Ann Warren, James Woods, Morgan Brittany, and Randy Quaid. With no theatrical trailers, television adverts, movie posters, or other studio publicity to speak of, audiences had few real clues as to what this putative crime-drama was about beyond some random snippets—an exploding car, Warren staring daggers at Glenn after she throws a drink in his face, Woods slow-burning tough guy bravado as a shadowy Fed investigating a coke deal gone awry, journalist (?) Quaid bursting into a bathroom stall and attacking a drug-snorting yuppie screaming “look at yourself!,” Brittany saying “watch this” before she tips Quaid’s dinner plate into his lap after he ogles a passing woman, a distraught hotel maid discovering a fatal gunshot victim inside an elevator, and presumed fall guy Glenn dropping a briefcase off of an L.A. balcony—all showcased in Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band’s latest music video.

This video for “American Storm”—a driving heartland rocker conspicuously absent from any motion picture soundtrack that nevertheless peaked at number 13 on the Billboard Hot 100—generated its fair share of media buzz after its small-screen debut as both the lead single for the band’s fifth studio album Like a Rock and as a comeback of sorts for a group long out of the limelight. (Risky Business (1983) catapulting their 1979 hit “Old Time Rock and Roll” back into the charts and—regrettably—onto karaoke and wedding DJ playlists for perpetuity, notwithstanding). Nowadays the dialogue-heavy “American Storm” clip maintains a ghostlike presence on YouTube, Vimeo, and other Internet platforms trafficking in 80s video ephemera for many reasons (seriously good luck tracking it down online) just as the song itself eludes most popular recollection given its second-tier status vis-à-vis more enduring Seger-penned favorites including “Night Moves,” “Against the Wind,” and “Turn the Page.”  Indeed, “American Storm” is AWOL on both Seger’s RIAA-certified diamond-selling compilation Greatest Hits (1994) and its platinum-selling follow-up Greatest Hits 2 (2003).

That said, the “American Storm” video still caused something of a stir upon its 1986 release, establishing a conceptual template later replicated by the Beastie Boys in their iconic cop-show sendup “Sabotage” (1994) and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s lesser known “Talk About the Blues” (1998) which featured actors Winona Ryder, Giovanni Ribisi, and John C. Reilly handling the clip’s music performance footage and band members acting out scenes in a mock fin de siècle NYC crime caper. In particular, “American Storm” earned plaudits for cleverly subverting a short-form entertainment genre all but ossifying into cookie-cutter rigidity—the venerable soundtrack music video.

By this point in MTV’s nearly half-decade run, movie tie-in videos had reached peak saturation on network programming, achieving unofficial status as broadcast filler as they hit a creative cul-de-sac aesthetically speaking. As a teenager who watched an inordinate amount of MTV during these years, I remember an incessant barrage of these seemingly interchangeable movie tie-in videos flickering across our massive cathode-ray tube screens. Offering viewers little more than lively music performances interspliced with resonant film footage, these three-to-four-minute promos were essentially a glorified coming attractions or formulaic music channel wallpaper. Not so with “American Storm.”  Even as the Seger promo deviates little from genre conventions established by the likes of Kenny Loggins’s “Danger Zone” (Top Gun) and the Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance” (Beverly Hills Cop), it does break new ground in one important aspect, distinguishing itself from the pack by adding an inventive twist to soundtrack music videomaking.

If it is now not abundantly clear then it certainly bears mentioning and reiterating that while De Palma did oversee the “movie” portions of the “American Storm” promo, he did not, in fact, helm the source Hollywood feature from which its dramatic scenes are ostensibly culled. Truth be told, no one actually directed this unnamed motion picture since the mystery film does not exist, at least not in any coherent or conventional sense. The footage of Glenn, Warren, and others was shot by De Palma strictly for this new Seger release, foregrounding well-established soundtrack video tropes and providing audiences a nicely packaged exercise in genre subversion without the actors overselling it or otherwise winking at the camera. Perhaps the most glaring indicators as to the video’s novel status are the obvious film spoilers including Glenn being led away in handcuffs by federal agents towards the promo’s end or Woods’s subdued expression of satisfaction as he pulls off an apparent double-cross.

De Palma—no stranger to music promos having directed Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s “Dancing in the Dark” not to mention shoehorning a stylized Frankie Goes to Hollywood video into the middle of his adult-oriented Hitchcock pastiche Body Double (1984)—filmed the constituent parts of this presumed crime-drama in L.A., interweaving them with soundstage clips of Seger and company passionately performing “American Storm” and shot by journeyman music video director Jim Yukich  in an effort to promote the group’s latest record company release. So, even as many big-name 80s artists produced soundtrack singles and companion music videos to help hype new Hollywood product, none besides Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band had A-list film industry talent create exclusive and pricey movie content—that is, elaborate action sequences, dramatic set pieces, pyrotechnics, and car crashes—for the expressed purpose of publicizing a new rock record.

Popular soundtrack videos airing on MTV from 1985 to 1986 include: Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill” (A View to a Kill), Wang Chung’s “To Live and Die in L.A.” (To Live and Die in L.A.), John Parr’s “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)” (St. Elmo’s Fire), Rod Stewart’s “Love Touch” (Legal Eagles), Lionel Richie’s “Say You, Say Me” (White Nights), Madonna’s “Live to Tell” (At Close Range), Queen’s “Princes of the Universe” (Highlander), Tina Turner’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero” (Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome), and Pat Benatar’s “Invincible” (The Legend of Billie Jean).While by no means exhaustive, this list hints at the prominence that this short-form entertainment genre wielded on MTV playlists throughout the Me-First decade’s middle years. In fact, by 1987 the network even started doling out Moonman trophies at the annual Video Music Awards show for the year’s top movie soundtrack promo.

Suffice it to say, the symbiotic if sometimes incestuous relationship between Hollywood feature films and short-form music videos enjoyed primacy during the halcyon heyday of MTV’s mid-1980s hegemonic reign. Back when the pioneering 24-hour cable channel dealt mostly in repetitious VJ-centric programming interspersed with the occasional live concert, band documentary, midnight movie, remote broadcast, Monkees marathon, and, of course, ubiquitous blue jean, car, beer, and soft drink commercials, few could rival the network in terms of its cultural impact and marketing reach. As Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum so engagingly argue in the introduction to their highly readable 2011 music channel oral history I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, MTV’s novel approach to packaging and presenting music videos—media content the channel neither created nor financed but all too cannily broadcast for significant advertising revenue—exerted a disproportionate influence over the viewing and buying habits of U.S. teens and the ever so lucrative 18-34 market demographic. MTV was the dominant force in pre-Internet American youth culture of the 80s.

Soundtrack music videos emerged as viable components of multiplatform movie studio marketing strategies. Style-over-substance uber movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer says as much in I Want My MTV,  “It was free promotion. Another platform to reach a young audience and it helped enormously” (Marks and Tannenbaum 22). As convenient all-in-one vehicles for ginning up public interest in upcoming blockbusters and assorted tie-in products—film soundtracks, radio-ready singles by established or emerging artists, movie source novels, or paperback novelizations—nothing captured Reagan-era cable viewer attention quite like well-made three-to-four minute promos showcasing various film scenes interspliced with evocative conceptual or concert footage by record label performers. A decent, albeit dated, satire of soundtrack videos can be found on the genre-skewering promo for the Temptations’ minor 1986 hit “A Fine Mess” from the long forgotten Blake Edwards comedy of the same name starring Ted Danson and Howie Mandel.

As writer Bill Bria notes in “The 12 Best Movie Soundtrack Music Videos” from 2018, these promos added a decisive bit more complexity to MTV playlists, falling somewhere between traditional Hollywood trailers and feature film highlight reels. If anything, soundtrack videos gave audiences a sneak peek at forthcoming cineplex fare beyond the conventional small-screen exposure provided by celebrity chat shows and syndicated newsmagazines. Seriously, it is hard to imagine a cult teenage vigilante film like Dangerously Close (1986) ever showing up on my cultural radar in small-town Texas without seeing the Smithereens’ companion soundtrack video for “Blood and Roses” multiple times on MTV. When played in heavy rotation, these hybrid expressions of artistic and commercial endeavor functioned as visual appetizers, whetting popular interest in new Tinseltown product without incurring the oft-exorbitant costs of primetime television ad campaigns. To be sure, (indirectly) plugging new releases on MTV, was an effective hedge against kneejerk channel flipping during intermittent commercial breaks when 15 or 30 second movie spots became so easily lost in the mind-numbing barrage of endless TV adverts.

Against this backdrop, many casual MTV viewers were initially confused by the “American Storm” promo seeing that it so convincingly adhered to the soundtrack video playbook. So much so, in fact, that expectations of a new De Palma feature could not be readily dismissed in the days and weeks after the promo hit the airwaves. I can even remember my Dad walking into the living room as my brother and I were sprawled out on our sectional sofa watching this clip and him asking us if the movie in the video was real or not.  When we told him no, he feigned disappointment seeing as he was a big Scott Glenn fan, especially for his memorable roles in Urban Cowboy (1980) and The Right Stuff (1983).

The nifty little movie-within-a-video concept in “American Storm” succeeds due to the cast’s total commitment to their respective roles. When it comes to selling it, the actors pull no punches in their highly calibrated performances. Lesley Ann Warren delivers a masterclass in the onscreen close-up much like her subsequent video performance in Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun” (1989) as she confronts her shattered self in the make-up mirror while James Woods exudes muted satisfaction once the noose starts closing in on the ill-fated Scott Glenn who in one scene luxuriates in a bubbling Jacuzzi while declaiming the crime-drama dialogue that was so pervasive in the movies and TV shows of the time into a phone. Randy Quaid, seemingly there for comedic relief, gets to chew up the scenery a bit but not as much as the background extra who screams “He’s got a gun!” when an Uzi-toting bad guy spills into a hotel atrium and mayhem ensues.

The contrived film drama showcased in the “American Storm” video seems to satirize the cop vs. drug dealer tropes so prevalent in mid-1980s soundtrack promos including Phil Collins’s “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)” (Against All Odds), Michael McDonald’s “Sweet Freedom” (Running Scared), and Glenn Frey’s “Smuggler’s Blues” (Miami Vice). As those making millions in the narcotics trade luxuriate in Nagel-print splendor, unwitting patsies and scrappy law enforcement types court danger and star-crossed romance as car chases, gun battles, and unexpected betrayal ensue. These interstitial music video scenes appear interchangeable with so much of what was aired on MTV and elsewhere as Reagan’s second term got underway, offering a window into the glamorized lifestyles that captured the American imagination back when the cool and cerebral style of Crockett and Tubbs reigned supreme.

Matching the dynamism of these realistic De Palma “movie” performances is Seger and company’s blistering onstage intensity as they tear through this piano-driven barnburner, singing what at first blush sounds like a patriotic ode to U.S. exceptionalism ala Lee Greenwood or Ted Nugent but in reality, as Seger tells Bob Costas in an early 1990s interview, it details the cocaine epidemic gripping Miami Vice-era America. Amid flashy stage-lighting, slick arena-ready aesthetics, and unapologetic ‘80s fashion selections, this veteran Michigan outfit deliver the goods with reckless abandon as the performance footage of “American Storm” (again directed by Jim Yukich and not De Palma) holds together the skeletal plotline of the putative film’s unfolding narrative.

Doubtless if there is any movie tie-in promo for which Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band is popularly known, it is likely a toss-up between the one filmed for their second number one Billboard hit “Shakedown” from 1987’s Beverly Hills Cop II or the quickly assembled clip for “Old Time Rock and Roll,” pieced together to capitalize on Tom Cruise’s breakout turn in the teen sex-comedy Risky Business, especially his now iconic lip-synching performance sliding across the floor in his socks, pink shirt, and white briefs. Also, worth mentioning in this context is a young Mickey Rourke miming the words to Seger’s 1978 hit “Feel Like a Number” while watching his lawyer (William Hurt) assemble an explosive device in 1981’s Body Heat. “American Storm” clip was a transitional video for Seger, an artist reportedly not “a huge fan of the idea of a music video” (Marks and Tannenbaum 94), since it was his first of many promos not to rely strictly on performance footage including “Like a Rock,” “The Fire Inside,” and “The Real Love”.

Considered altogether, “American Storm” achieves credibility as a soundtrack video in terms of form and execution even though it is not a soundtrack video in any real sense. Sadly, 21st century audiences may never get to encounter or reacquaint themselves with this lost classic seeing as the dialogue-heavy scenes that made it so initially memorable now render its broadcast or online availability economically unfeasible with its cast of top Hollywood talent still entitled to residuals every time the video plays (which is why we could only include a non-video version of the song found on YouTube). As streaming services and video-sharing platforms dominate how we now consume visual media, “American Storm” and the fake film that held it together seems like a quaint throwback whose pop culture shelf-life expired a long time ago without much discernible long-term recognition or commemoration. Yet, its impact lingers not just as a reminder of a time when soundtrack videos were ascendant as cross-promotional tools for Hollywood studios hawking myriad tie-in movie products but also as a slick subversion of an entertainment genre beset by numerous tiresome tropes worthy of send-up. In a very real sense, “American Storm” serves as both a touchstone and highwater mark for soundtrack music videos even though it cannot accurately lay claim to such distinctions.

Ty Matejowsky is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.  His recent publications include pieces in We Are the Mutants and Sports Literate.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s