Flashdance is the story of a Pittsburgh steel-mill welder by day, and bar dancer by night. Alexandra “Alex” Owens (Jennifer Beals) is harboring dreams of a career in ballet, she is given monetary support in this dream by her boss Nick Hurley (Michael Nouri) and moral support from her big-hearted instructor Hanna Long (Lilia Skala). That is about as much of a “plot” as you can get from the film. I revisited this film after a very long hiatus, and watched it with my girlfriend on Valentine’s Day.
What the movie gets right:
The sense of the underdog challenging the norm and making her dreams come true. A sort of “Rocky” for girls. Instead of punches, it’s the expression of dance, and the physical expression of what you are currently experiencing in your life. What a Feeling and Maniac, are two songs on the soundtrack that helped get the Grammy nomination for album of the year. Even if you don’t know the film, you probably know some of the music.
The music is at the top of the form with the legendary Giorgio Moroder producing many of the tracks, and getting the Oscar in 1983 for the score. Also, this was a landmark sound off of producing talent, including Don Simpson, Jerry Bruckheimer, Tom Jacobson, Lynda Rosen Obst, Peter Guber, and Jon Peters. You may have heard of some of those names before if you’ve heard of Top Gun and Batman.
Jennifer Beals as an adorable girl on the edge of womanhood, and exploring those age 18 and above conquests. One of those conquests being an older man. She gets to be in control.
What the movie gets wrong:
Why does the boss pursue this girl when he is literally twice her age? He is divorced. Perhaps he is going through a stalled connection with the world of dating. True he sees her after work, doing the famous splashy dance number on stage. But it seems CREEPY to hit on an eighteen year old girl, especially when she is working at the steel mill where you are the boss. That kind of thing wouldn’t fly today, but I can look past it, I suppose. I can say “Oh it’s a fantasy yarn.”
The steel mill. Pittsburgh. They want this girl to be tough, hard working, But looking at the footage of her in the mill was very cringe worthy. She is literally making sparks on metal. We never see what happens to the metal that these people are working on. It looks like they are all making sparks, cutting with blow torches, and one fellow even having sparks flying towards his eyes, while his safety goggles sit casually on his head. To me, that pulled the film into music video territory. It was as if they were playing at being steel workers, but were really just makings sparks and steam for Adrian Lyne’s signature look.
Pulling off the helmet to see her face, clean as ever, with no dirt and no soot? It really just halted the story for me. It would have made more sense to have their be a community of people and the progress of the work being done at the mill to lend a sense of the duality of her life. Working hard at a mill, working hard on a stage dancing at night? Sorry. Eighteen or not, she would be sleeping half of the time. But that doesn’t seem very cinematic.
When she throws tantrums, I really lost any sympathy I had built up for her character. It seems the writers were trying way too hard to make her tough, but instead they made her a brat. A petulant child who doesn’t deserve any of the chances she had. Her mentor who is encouraging her to go for her dreams, dies off camera, while she was in the middle of a fight with her new boyfriend, who she never introduced to her mentor, by the way. Sad and sloppy.
The scene in the restaurant with the lobster eating. I was chuckling the whole time. Sorry, but there is NOTHING sexy about a woman, no matter how attractive, eating string pieces of seafood in a ill fitting tuxedo. It just was border line late night Cinemax soft core porn, and really took the film down a few more notches.
And finally, the painfully obvious doubles standing in for our lead Jennifer Beals. To be fair, many stars have doubles doing the more difficult moves and stunts, but there were times where it was clearly not Jennifer’s body and face, and it just became laughable. The worst offense is the break dancer with a MUSTACHE standing in for admittedly an impressive move. Perhaps that is the filmmaker in me, but I felt that a film, like Dirty Dancing, which has some similar tropes, pulled off the casting better.
That’s not to say Jennifer Beals is not iconic in the role, but she clearly had an eighteen year old body, while the double had a more toned and older body. It almost became comedic. The double was painfully apparent in the “kabuki” scene, with a wig and a face that was clearly not Jennifer Beals. Perhaps they thought they could pull it off by blinding us with the strobe lights, but it’s THERE. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.
So why does this movie hold up so well, in spite of these critical flaws?
I think it’s because it was on the edge of that post disco fever. It also introduced some breakdancing, which was then still cutting edge, in the mainstream public. And the music and visuals wash away much of the disbelief. The music does much of the work, while the editing and “edginess” sold it to a huge crowd. Enough people responded to the film, that it changed the career of Adrian Lyne for the better. If that film was not a hit, then there might not have been Fatal Attraction, so in that respect, I am glad Flashdance pulled off what it did. But as a film, I think that I would only revisit it now, as a time capsule look at the early 1980’s climate of film.