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Released 35 years ago, Flashdance is a film that prioritises style over substance. Yet, it also had a huge influence on pop culture in the 1980s and beyond. Why has Flashdance endured?
By day, 18-year-old Alex (Jennifer Beals) is a welder at a Pittsburgh steel mill. In the evenings, she’s a dancer at a nearby bar’s cabaret. Her dream is to dance professionally. Can she overcome her fears and some minor obstacles to achieve her goal? The story is flimsy. Yet, there’s a lot of dancing to distract from the plot-holes.
A surprise commercial hit on release in 1983, the film’s style borrows heavily from music videos of the period. MTV had launched two years earlier and the music video had come into its own as a form of art. Flashdance is not a musical because no characters break into song. But, it is a film about dance so music is crucial.
Music is one of this film’s great strengths. From the workout sequence soundtracked by ‘Maniac’ to the constant repetition and echo of ‘Flashdance…What a Feeling’, it is the songs that give the film a sonic completeness that it lacks in other places.
None of the dance sequences would have looked out of place on MTV at that time. Directed by Adrian Lyne (Indecent Proposal, Lolita), the film’s choreography draws from many different traditions including disco, ballet and hip hop to create performances that appear to have been improvised onscreen. The dancers feel the essence of the music then interpret this through their bodies. They don’t need dance lessons to do this, all they require is the rhythm.
This approach has continued to influence dance on film from Dirty Dancing to Save the Last Dance. It’s difficult to think of a recent dance film that hasn’t been influenced in some way by the legacy of Flashdance. Watching it back, there is little effort to disguise the necessary use of dance doubles. It’s strange to watch the shifts between actors and dancers that are often better disguised by other films.
Just as Flashdance drew from MTV, the film’s iconic audition scene has been widely referenced with artists such as Kanye West, Jennifer Lopez and Geri Halliwell using it in their music videos. Flashdance’s influence extends from pop culture into fashion because its look is quintessentially early 1980s. Leg warmers, leotards and shoulder pads all make an appearance.
Of course, its’ emphasis on style doesn’t mean there is nothing else going on. Flashdance is film as a fantasy about risking all for your dreams. Its lead character, Alex, is a working-class woman who lives alone with her dog in a converted warehouse that is both spacious and comfortable. She is shown to be assertive and self-reliant. As the main character, she is also allowed to be impulsive and self-sabotaging without being unduly punished. What’s more her male colleagues don’t make any comments about her dancing. She is free to be herself. Alex can work two physically demanding jobs without burnout. Her curly hair doesn’t turn into uncontrollable frizz when it’s wet. How is that possible? In every sense, Flashdance is a fantasy of empowerment and social mobility.
Of course, this fantasy has its problematic elements especially the romantic subplot. Many relationships begin in the workplace. Yet, the romance between Alex and her boss Nick comes across as very troubling. While the film never explicitly states the age gap between the couple, several references suggest a significant difference. He’s also her employer who continues to ask her out even after she has firmly rejected him more than once. Nick goes as far as to follow Alex home and tell her she’s fired before she says yes. Perhaps, his persistence signals his attraction to her. After all, he doesn’t really fire her. Rewatching it now, his attention comes across as creepy. The romance makes for uncomfortable viewing because it suggests that it’s acceptable for a man to dismiss a woman’s stated wishes.
One of the highest grossing films of 1983, Flashdance was also the first collaboration between producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson. The pair would go on to produce some of the big hits of the decade including Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop.
Flashdance is a film about dreams coming true. Its influence now may have as much to do with a nostalgia for the early 1980s as it does with the film’s escapism. It is good to re-watch popular films to understand why they are held in such affection. This can tell us as much about now as it does about the past.