Flashdance (United States, 1983)

April 25, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Flashdance Poster

Flashdance might be considered one of the first signs of Hollywood's Apocalypse. This represented the coming-out party for no fewer than four major big-budget exploitation figures, and its unexpected box office success catapulted all of them into the stratosphere, where they indulged themselves for years to come. Although producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson were Tinseltown veterans by 1983, this was the debut of a partnership that would produce the likes of Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun, Bad Boys, Crimson Tide, The Rock, and Michael Bay. (Bruckheimer's legacy expanded after Simpson's 1996 death.) Director Adrian Lyne would ride Flashdance's coattails to gigs helming Nine 1/2 Weeks and Fatal Attraction. And scribe Joe Eszterhas moved from Flashdance to Basic Instinct and Showgirls.

Flashdance is not a particularly good film, nor is it memorable on its cinematic merits. It proffers cheesy drama, amateurish acting, and a staple fairy tale plot - but audiences ate it up. Part of that had to do with the music - the soundtrack album was amazingly successful - and part had to do with the film's look. Flashdance spawned the off-the-shoulder look that characterized mid-'80s fashion. The movie became a pop culture touchstone, much like Saturday Night Fever in the late '70s and Dirty Dancing in the late '80s. With the Musical all-but-dead in this era, melodramas containing song-and-dance elements were able to capitalize on the opening. Given Flashdance's popularity in 1983 and its continuing name recognition during the quarter-century since its release, it's surprising that Hollywood has not yet gotten around to remaking it. It's probably only a matter of time.

When it comes to the storyline, Flashdance is exceptionally shallow. Alex Owens (Jennifer Beals) is a steel worker by day and an exotic dancer by night. Her dream is to legitimatize her dancing and perform for a living, but she lacks the self-confidence to go through with the application process. Meanwhile, she starts dating her Porsche-driving boss (Michael Nouri), but she is no more confident about her relationship with him than she is about her dancing talent. Flashdance is ultimately about her uncovering the path to follow her dream and live happily ever after with Nouri's Nick Hurley. Those looking for any degree of depth in Flashdance's simplicity won't find it. This is strictly uncomplicated melodrama with some over-the-top dance scenes and a soundtrack that featured a few big hits.

The concept of a young woman forced into grueling temporary work while pursuing a dream is obviously a popular concept in Hollywood, especially since it mirrors the lives of so many actors, writers, and directors. Two of those involved in Flashdance returned to the same well at least once more - Eszterhas with Showgirls and Bruckheimer with Coyote Ugly. Most of these "follow a dream" movies are disappointing, in large part because of an unwillingness on the part of the filmmakers to abandon the underlying Cinderella premise. How much more interesting, not to mention realistic, would it have been for Alex to have botched her audition? However, while such a movie might have been more honest, it would not have scaled the box office mountain the way Flashdance did.

At a time before the birth of the PG-13 rating, Flashdance teeters for most of its running length between PG and R content. Under-the-table foot play and topless shots of Alex's best friend, Jeanie (Sunny Johnson), shift the balance toward the R, but it's not hard to guess that Lyne might have been hedging his bets. It wouldn't have required much work in the editing room to transform Flashdance into a PG film - there is no Beals nudity (and her "exotic" dances are merely suggestive, not graphic - this is one of those go-go clubs where the dancers remain clothed), the sex scenes are tame, and the profanity is limited. Ultimately, the decision to release Flashdance with an R rating was probably decided by a desire to target a more adult audience. In today's climate, this would have been trimmed a little to get a PG-13.

Flashdance was Jennifer Beals' first movie (she was previously a model), and the one upon which her entire career has been based. She is attractive, flexible, and charming, but her range is limited. During several scenes demanding intense emotion, she is either flat or goes over-the-top. Beals is arguably best known for her dancing in Flashdance, although the lion's share of that work was done by a double. Despite her limitations, she parlayed her fame from Flashdance into a lengthy career of supporting movie roles and TV guest appearances, and has honed her craft considerably over the years. Her co-star, Michael Nouri, was an '80s hunk whose career followed a similar path to that of Beals, although his strength of performance, at least as evidenced in Flashdance, was more accomplished.

Flashdance is a perfect example of a movie that's better known for its impact on pop culture than for what exists on celluloid. Who hasn't heard "What a Feeling" or "Maniac"? The former song, along with Beals' audition, became a staple of the '80s and is often referred to in dance-related movies (such as The Full Monty). When one considers the career boosts received by Eszterhas, Lyne, Bruckheimer, and Simpson, as well as the musical and fashion influences, it's impossible to dismiss Flashdance as insignificant. There are times when motion picture phenomena develop out of meager material, and this is one such instance. As popular escapist entertainment, Flashdance is adequate, but as a representation and reflection of the times, it etched out an indelible niche.

Flashdance (United States, 1983)

Director: Adrian Lyne
Cast: Jennifer Beals, Michael Nouri, Lilia Skala, Sunny Johnson, Kyle T. Heffner
Screenplay: Tom Hedley and Joe Eszterhas
Cinematography: Don Peterman
Music: Giorgio Moroder
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 1983-04-15
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1