June 18, 2015
Flashdance – US, 1983
Flashdance has been one of those films I have found countless reasons not to see over the years. When it came out, it was not the kind of film my mother would have allowed me to see – an odd fact at first given how big a role dancing and musical theater had in my childhood. Alas, it was rated R. Later, it just slipped out of consciousness, perhaps due to the fact that my sister had been a fan of it. Visiting the film now after so many years, I was surprised at how well it fit the 1980s, and this is not necessarily a compliment.
Flashdance is directed by Adrian Lyne, whose resume prior to this film had consisted of just 1980’s Foxes and two shorts, but who would go on to direct Nine ½ Weeks and the Oscar-Nominated Fatal Attraction. Co-authoring the screenplay was none other than Joe Esterhas, who years later would write about trying to make smoking sexy in films such as Basic Instinct. It almost goes without saying that one of the producers of the film was Jerry Bruckheimer. It is also worth noting that the film was released just two years after the launch of MTV, and its influence is undeniable.
I mention this outright because it has often been pointed out that there is a difference between the kind of film that women make about women and the kind that men make. Women may produce films like The Piano, Winter's Bone, and Little Man Tate; men tend to make movies like Flashdance. I’ll put it another way. It’s the difference between Aerosmith’s I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing, written by Diane Warren, and Samantha Fox’s Touch Me, written by Jon Astrop, Mark Shreeve, and Peter Harris. The first is a rather respectful tune about the powerful effect that true love can have on those lucky enough to feel it; the latter reflects what many men wish women were like and what the many in the music industry have made a fortune depicting them as.
With Flashdance, the trio of Lynne, Esterhas, and Bruckheimer created a film that is all spectacle with very little in the way of substance. There are some marvelously choreographed dance numbers, some of the best use of fog machines I have seen in some time, and some superb uses of space to transform empty rooms and colorless backdrops into platform on which the film’s heroine can create her frenetic dance routines. And then there’s the reality the film creates for its characters, one of pure cinematic fantasy. For example, the film creates two competing versions of "strip" clubs. In the first of these, Mawby’s Bar, there is apparently no nudity. What seems to draw its rather loyal clientele is the art of the young ladies’ performances. After all, where else can you see someone gyrating to the tune Manhunt as if she were an extra in a Whitesnake video? In another scene, we watch what can only be described as performance art – a combination of Japanese kabuki and miming set to Laura Branigan’s “Imagination.” The film, like Striptease and Burlesque, would have you believe that single young men just off work and looking to relax would go for that sort of thing. The second club is the much sleazier one down the street. This one is run by a scheming thug who seduces naïve women into a life of stripping and has very little respect for the women who work for him. A clash seems inevitable.
In the film, Jennifer Beals plays Alex, a welder by day, “stripper” by night. In what masquerades as the film’s story, Alex is pursued by Nick Hurley (Michael Nouri), who just happens to be her boss. Nick becomes smitten with Alex after witnessing her shedding some of her clothes and releasing a bucket of water on herself, thus creating a major mess for the club’s unfortunate janitor. Poor guy. Nick begins to pursue her for no other reason than that he liked her act, but we’re supposed to believe that he’s not as shallow as that. The two eventually date, and Nick becomes aware of Alex’s wish to be a real dancer in a local ballet. Hey, wouldn’t it be great if Nick had some connections in the ballet world?
There are also a number of supporting characters, the most important of which is Alex's sister, Jeanie (Sunny Johnson), who longs to be a figure skater. Jeanie works as a waitress at Mawby’s Bar and has a bit of a crush on its annoying chef, Richie (Kyle T. Heffner). He wants to a comedian, and if tired jokes about Polacks make you uncomfortable, you may want to cover your ears. His brief stand-up act is a remnant of what seems to have been a much crueler time comically, and the scene no longer works – if it ever did. Perhaps the most memorable of the film’s supporting characters is Hanna Long (Lilia Skala), an elderly woman who at one time had dreams of becoming a famous dancer. She didn’t make it, but she just knows that Alex will. The actors who play these roles give it their all, yet the film works against them, reducing them to little more than bit parts in a film that, with the exception of Long, doesn’t really need them.
And then there are the film’s musical numbers, and what exactly are we to make of them? The first one makes the point that Alex is a good dancer, the second that she trains hard. The third one is an embarrassing number set at a gym featuring three ladies working out to Joan Jett’s I Love Rock and Roll in front of walls of white screens. With the camera focused almost squarely on the ladies’ chests, the scene will make audiences feel like voyeurs, and, with that, it becomes clear that these numbers are no longer advancing the story. They seem much more interested in being parts of music videos and in driving sales of the film’s soundtrack than in moving the story along. Perhaps this is why the film’s closing credits include snippets of songs instead of just one from start to finish. It is essentially an advertisement.
I have been fairly negative up until the point, and I don’t mean to be, for Flashdance is a film I can easily see people enjoying. Like Grease and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, it has its fans, and one can imagine it becoming one of those cult classics that are shown at midnight. And to be honest, the film has its moments, albeit most of these involve conversations between Alex and Hanna. I also have to admire the energy and determination that Jennifer Beals put into the film. If the film succeeds at all – and it does in parts – it is due to the effort she puts into making it more than it is. In fact, she seems to be single-handedly pulling it up from the depths it could easily have sunk into. In this effort, she gets little help from the script, which telegraphs every move and creates drama in the most unrealistic of situations, such as when Alex screams to be let out of the car as she and Nick are driving through a busy freeway underpass. It’s the kind of moment that only happens in movies, and it rings false. However, even here, Beals makes the moment tolerable.
Perhaps I wouldn’t have minded the film so much were it not for the fact that it is edited as if it were a roadrunner cartoon, never stopping for air or conversation, let alone character development. As a result, the relationship between Alex and Nick remains undeveloped, Alex’s fits of fury seemingly come out of nowhere, and plots points that had some semblance of promise are dropped or remain frustratingly unfulfilled. It is a missed opportunity, yet I think I know why so little emphasis was given to the plot. It was 1983, and videos were all the rage. Who wanted plot but purists? Just keep their toes tapping and their eyes ogling, and no one will notice that the emperor has no clothes. And if that doesn’t work, film Beals sitting dejected while smoking and looking sexy. That’ll really sell tickets. (on DVD)