Reviewed by: Chris

Can you recall a moment of personal success, long awaited..?

From passions, aspirations and heartache, to calm execution. Faces of friends who believe in you. Encouraging words to give you strength. Hope and dreams hidden in your heart. Maybe the touch of a hand that tells you, “Yes, now’s the time.” What were you wearing? What music was playing? Did you suddenly catch your breath, feel more alive?

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Segments of sensory experience are building blocks of memory and also akin to the images used by advertising and pop videos to stimulate such feelings. The buttons we press. Or that others press for us.

Derided by critics and adored by movie-goers in equal measure, Flashdance survives with enduring popularity. For many people (this reviewer included) it was the first film they went back to see a second time. Whether you want to be caught up in the moment, re-experience it, or simply examine the psychopathology of the phenomenon, Flashdance is a landmark. How can we fathom its success? What is the largely invisible strategy that makes us enjoy it like a drug – even while disclaiming it as low-brow?

Flashdance is the story of Alex, a young working class girl who wants it all. Welder by day, bar-room jazz dancer by night, she dreams of dancing ballet, of being successful and independent. And of meeting the perfect man. After requisite plot-line hurdles, she, indeed, ‘gets it all’. She will be sexy yet innocent. Autonomous yet with Mr Right. Fulfilling a destined role without compromising integrity. The perfect woman. And an attractive role model for pubescent 13-year-olds.

Is this too cynical? Surely her story could be that of anyone for whom the right things just happen at the right time.

The movie opens with the eponymous Oscar-winning song by Irene Cara. Descending semi-tones evoke sentimental emotion. Warm fuzzies for the longings of this decent young girl. She cycles to work through the melting pot of Pittsburgh’s streets. No make-up. She can do a man’s job. Sparks light up the screen as she lifts the tools of the welder. Our song breaks into triumphant major keys.

Fast montage arrests attention. It’s an editing style developed for advertising, bombarding us with images of short duration before cutting to the next. A roller-coaster of surprises stops an audience looking away. Absorbed in keeping up, the viewer become less analytical of any hidden ‘message.’ Alex is a just a nice girl with an ugly but lovable dog. Good luck to her.

Cut to Mawby’s Bar. From the drab surroundings, a strikingly lit stage reveals an impressive and artistic (if also very sensuous) dancer. Only as she comes out of silhouette is it revealed as Alex. The impact mirrors the scene when she removed the welder’s helmet. It seems to say, ‘the star of every scene is just the girl-next-door’.

It was unusual at that time for a woman to take the lead role in a dance film. Yet this seeming coup d’état is arguably nothing of the sort, and cinema simply becomes the fantasy we want to see. In an apparent show of female solidarity, Alex rescues her friend Jeannie, who has sunk to striptease for more money. When Alex’s boyfriend Nick uses power connections to help Alex’s career, Alex rejects his help. She’s her own woman. These messages-we-want-to-hear are played up. But the lynchpins of the storyline are sugar-coated for swallowing without thought.

When Alex dances, high production values make us dismiss the notion that, just like Jeannie, she is really there to be ogled by men. Neither is her temporary rejection of Nick without coercion. When she refuses to ‘date the boss,’ he laughs, “You’re fired! I’ll pick you up tomorrow at eight!” On screen, it comes across as comedy. In real life (and from a powerful, much older man like Nick) it could verge on harassment. But onscreen Alex meekly succumbs (and sentimental sections of song are used to indicate her warm feelings).

Traditional male dominance is concealed beneath enticing girl power before the latter is invisibly eroded. When Alex ‘gets her man,’ the images say that class and gender barriers have been dissolved. While she will become the young accessory riding in his Porsche, he will get to share her pooch. A match made in heaven? Or made beneath the strip lights of a bar where she danced half-naked?

Alex is fortunate to have a choice between becoming a stripper, like Jeannie, or becoming Nick’s dependent. Imbalances of class and gender are both asserted, as contradictions are glossed over. Work hard, be a good person, go to Confession, and ‘fate’ (or the rich suitor) will miraculously make things right.

The ostensible triumph of the American Dream and the idea that ultimately everything works out for the best is, on closer examination, a simple reinforcement of dominant ideology. Alex’s world is an America that rises above class distinctions, but only in a flimsily-constructed fantasy.

Notwithstanding disingenuous subliminal ideology, we can overlook (in the spirit of musical fantasy) impossible details like this 18-year-old female welder earning enough to live in a large converted warehouse, starting serious ballet at far too late an age, being a polished, athletic dancer in spite of never having had lessons, and facing professional judges who are ludicrously silly. Alex is rescued from her slightly disreputable branch of dancing not by a professional dancer but by a steel mill owner. Yet the film’s delivery is so slick it made box office records. Its huge popularity endured to make it a cult classic. It spawned hit singles and helped launch the careers of many of those involved.

For dance enthusiasts, routines at Mawby’s are rapturous examples of effective lighting, clothes, music and props that heighten dance impact. Fast editing – a uniquely cinematic option that can’t be reproduced in theatre or the dance stage – has a secondary function: a professional dancer, filmed at a discreet distance, is rapidly intercut with close-ups of Jennifer Beals wearing the same costume and moving to the same music. A technique commonly used for fights and specialised stunt-work, its use in Flashdance opened the floodgates for a host of copycat dance movies that would follow. The real dancer is not even credited as producers do not want to spoil the illusion. Nevertheless, it is a better display of genuine dance than many subsequent movies where editing has been taken to extreme. We see actual dancing, performed by whoever. Not just a collage of arms and legs intercut to look like the real thing.

Flashdance is one of the original ‘high concept’ movies. A film with one simple idea explainable in few words. The style was largely created by Jerry Bruckheimer, a producer on Flashdance. But Flashdance is also what the French, around that time, would call ‘Cinema du Look.’ Fast moving, highly artificial cinema, it draws inspiration from TV commercials, music videos and fashion photography. Stark blocks of colour and mirrored surfaces for visual impact. It was made in the Eighties as computerised editing, much easier than physically handling cumbersome film, encouraged exuberant cutting.

What lets Flashdance down in the eyes of many serious film-goers is its insubstantial and unimaginative plotline. Although this means it lacks the classiness of such French visual offerings as Diva and Subway, or the intricacy of, say, Blade Runner (which uses similar bold techniques), would we overlook the story weaknesses more easily if it were perhaps in Japanese? (The film won two Best Foreign Language Film awards in Japan.) Watching a film that is not in one’s first language helps to balance out the emphasis we otherwise give to narrative, which is only one aspect of the cinematic experience.

Flashdance is indeed flashy and youth-orientated. Together with the equally trivial (and equally durable) Dirty Dancing four years later, Flashdance sells soft-core sex for teens and pre-teens. It also heralded an instant fashion hit of worn-in sweat-shirts that slip easily off the shoulder. The ‘look’ of a down-to-earth, athletic and sexy woman.

But is it worthy of serious adult consideration? Apart from the acclaimed camera techniques and award winning songs, Flashdance has sparked considerable debate over its feminist aspirations.

Twenty years later, Jennifer Lopez would make a tribute version of the dance sequences for one of her music videos, saying it is simply; “about a girl with a dream and being glad and satisfied.” Feminist writer Patricia Erens sees shades of grey: “To consider the exquisitely fit female-fantasy bodies in Flashdance only in terms of male desire, one has to ignore women’s responses to the film.” Other feminist academics have defended Flashdance saying that the ‘correct’ pleasure of avant-garde films is not available to all, and that popular movies such as Flashdance provide pleasure for female viewers and “are consequently important vehicles for social change”.

Why is Flashdance so popular today? Is it perhaps that we like the fantasy, delivered with high-octane precision, even if we know it to be false? We tune out bits we don’t like, adjust it to our own dreams, and ride an emotional high. Flashdance is a film to experience. The dance sequences are electrifying. We are pummelled and enraptured with such professional filming, editing, scripting and a song both to die for and live up to. Are we not entitled, like Alex, to make the most of the compromise? Flashdance can be cheap trash or a milestone. You decide.

Reviewed on: 18 Apr 2009
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Flashdance packshot
A steelworker spends her nights as an exotic dancer, saving up to go to ballet school.
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Director: Adrian Lyne

Writer: Thomas Hedley Jr., Joe Eszterhas

Starring: Jennifer Beals, Michael Nouri, Lilia Skala, Sunny Johnson, Kyle T. Heffner, Lee Ving

Year: 1983

Runtime: 95 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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