Flashdance

David Cronenberg’s… Fleshdance.
★★★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
1983
Director: 
Adrian Lyne
Starring: 
Jennifer Beals, Michael Nouri, Lilia Skala, Sunny Johnson
The Setup: 
She's a welder! And a dancer! And she has hopes and dreams, so she trades her body to an older man to advance her interests.
Discussion: 

Sometimes in life you’re just sitting there, numbly going through an endless series of Netflix straight-to-streaming movies, wondering why you like watching movies in the first place, wondering what it says about you that you’re alone on your couch again, no friends, no one calling, wanting to eat those last few Girl Scout cookies but knowing you spent all that time on the treadmill, the only physical activity you get anymore, when—Holy Fuck! I could be watching Flashdance RIGHT NOW!

This movie seemed ESSENTIAL in that moment. Now, halfway through, I’m not even sure I want to finish it, but having started this review will spur me on. I was 12 when this movie came out, and I remember the general excitement over it to this day, as well as the wave of people in ripped sweatshirts that followed, and yes indeed we had the soundtrack in our home. But I haven’t seen it since, which was probably best for my mental health and moral development.

This was the first collaboration between Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson [who went on to do Top Gun and others, then Bruckheimer went on to spawn the career of Michael Bay and such films as Con Air] and as I was watching, I was like “Wait, Jon Peters must have a hand in this somewhere,” and sure enough, he’s executive producer. We open up with the famed theme song, playing as we watch a woman bike to work in the morning. The title fills the screen, moving left across it, as we see a welder named Alex. He lifts his face mask and, why—it’s a beautiful woman! It’s Jennifer Beals, made famous by this film, went on to star in The Bride with Sting [tried to make it through that one and couldn’t, guys—sorry!], then vanished before resurfacing briefly on The L Word. But it turns out she went to Yale and is good friends with David Duchovny and Jodie Foster, and she loves Buffy, so we’ll assume she’s too smart for Hollywood. Please understand that all insults from now on are hurled at her CHARACTER.

It occurred to me soon in that this movie heralded the very first signs of what would come to be known as “quirky” in movies and culture, where everything was just so, just a little off in an endearing way. So our heroine is named Alex, she has a dog named Grunt, she lives in an industrial loft [wholly new and sooooo amazing then], she watches traffic cops and “dances” with them. It was all new at the time, it didn’t become cliché until later. Anyway… we haven’t even gotten to the movie yet! But before we go on, we must note that this is co-written by Joe Esterhas, and is suffused with his positive and empowering attitudes toward women, which he went on to display in such films as Basic Instinct and Showgirls. Okay, can we FINALLY talk about the film now?

The credits are barely over before she’s dancing onstage [or, rather, her body double, which is rather extensively used, is] and dumping a bunch of water on herself, which is considered incredibly “hot.” Apparently they don’t have to worry about any of that water getting in the stage lights. Her moves are witnessed by Nick, owner of her welding company, who is transfixed. His friend tells him at the end of her dance that he is her boss; she works for him. Now, Jennifer Beals was 18 when this was filmed [and her character is also supposed to be 18, as we hear to our shock later] and Michael Nouri, who plays Nick, was 36 when they filmed. This adds a whole layer to the movie, as it completely holds up—and is in fact ONLY realistic as—a story of a boss going out with his employee, 18 years his junior. Except, I’m exaggerating when I say anything about this movie is realistic.

Nick finds her reading Vogue on her break the next day. She recognizes his name from her paycheck. We see that at home, she is obsessed with ballet, meaning that she has photos on her wall of ballet dancers, and that she attempts to imitate ballet that she sees on TV. Please do not be mistaken into thinking she might crack open a book. She then dances to the song “Maniac,” the other major hit from this film. There was one of the best movie stories in that it was said the song was originally written for famously gruesome William Lustig movie Maniac, but Wikipedia says it’s not true. Too bad. Great story. Even at home, she wears skimpy outfits and performs quite sexual moves. I guess it’s training for work. Speaking of work, the bar features a number of people trying to make it any way they can, including a cook who wants to be a comedian [and only tells question-and-answer Henny Youngman-type jokes… my God, what a dark time], and the mousy/fabulous Cynthia Rhodes, who also graced Staying Alive, Dirty Dancing and the wonderfully shitty Tom Selleck sci-fi movie Runaway, where she was menaced by robot spiders. Man, the 80s were great.

Anyway, Alex stops by the dance academy, but feels out of place and leaves when a quite snooty woman tells applicants to list all of the dance schools they’ve studied at. But Alex doesn’t study—she just FEELS it! She runs out—and through an art museum—which might seem like a bad gaffe, until I read that Pittsburgh’s dance academy is actually attached to its art museum. She then goes to visit her token elderly friend—no word on how they know each other—who encourages her to apply to study at the academy. Then she goes to confession where we find out that she “thinks about sex a lot” and is only 18! That was kind of a shock… would they hire an 18yo welder? It’s also an unfortunate reminder that everything skews so young in the mainstream that an 18yo actress reads as about 25 or 30. And only an Esterhas heroine would be 18 with a problem of thinking about sex too much.

She then goes to aerobicize with her friends, then they stop and watch some break dancers in the street. Please note that the break dancers are WHITE. Yes, the ever-so-common white break dancers of Pittsburgh. Soon some black people stop to watch the white dancers, and finally, at the end of the sequence, we have a black dancer. This is all to show how Alex is quirky and down with “the street.” Then we note that a traffic cop is also “dancing” in his own way, and soon Alex is dancing with him. It’s all meant to show is that she takes dancing inspiration from the street as well as the ballet, an idea that was basically reprised whole-hog for Honey.

Then Ritchie gets a comedy showcase, only to bomb with his not-funny one liners, causing him to angrily tell the audience “Come on guys, I’m just a cook…” not one of the more winning showbiz strategies, until people suddenly start laughing and his show is a success. After the show, Alex is accosted by the cretin who runs the strip club [and wants her to work there, but as I'm sure you know, she’s a dancer, not a stripper], and is saved by Nick, who takes her home and again asks her out until she relents. After another friend falls during her ice skating competition—it’s all about how everyone is trying to make it in some show field—she goes out with Nick. He’s dumbfounded that he offered her “Fish, chicken, steak…” but what she wanted is pizza! It’s meant to show us that she’s uber quirky and down to earth, but it really just makes her more of a horny screenwriter’s creation. After dinner they come back to her place where the famous ripped sweatshirt comes out. She removes her bra under the sweatshirt, right in front of him, then approaches him for sex. You see, if you own a large company, horny 18-year-olds will want to skip the fancy dinners and throw themselves at you for sex, despite your being twice their age.

Okay, now the movie starts getting even less coherent, and just becomes a series of incidents around a basic theme. First, Alex talks about how she never took dance lessons, because she just FEELS it, and some nights she can’t wait to dance, because then she can disappear—a revelation that causes her to cry! And then she places Nick’s hand on her breast, because in Esterhas’ view of women, every activity causes them to want to fuck. Then she dances in this bizarre new wave number, and we have cause to note that even the professional dancer, her body double, isn’t really that great a dancer. Then Alex goes to the ballet with her older friend, and sees Nick there with another woman! So she rides by Nick’s house, and breaks a window! When she gets home, her radiator has leaked, which she gets on her knees to clean up in her evening dress. The next day, she and Nick have a big fight in front of the whole crew, but he explains that it was his ex-wife. So she threw a rock through his window for nothing, and with no information… which is why it REALLY starts to be about a relationship between an adult man and a very immature young woman. Then she goes to a nice dinner with Nick, wearing a tuxedo. She sensuously eats lobster, as she puts her foot into his crotch. Then his ex-wife says hello, and Alex reveals that she is wearing nothing but the white front under her jacket, and is nude otherwise… which is why it REALLY starts to be about a relationship between an adult man and a screenwriter’s imaginative sexual fantasy of what he wishes women were like.

Anyway, she finally goes and picks up an invitation to the academy. And Nick pulls some strings and gets her an audition. She immediately finds out, and stops traffic in a long tunnel and makes to walk home, making her look like an immature brat. When she goes back to her elderly friend’s… she’s DEAD! Alex mourns for exactly zero seconds. Now she’s smoking, which seems so jarring now, and is also quite sudden. Nick tells her she’s “too young to smoke,” in an infantilizing way, but it does kind of make explicit the nature of their relationship. In here she also drags her friend out of the strip club, because that is demeaning herself and then she won’t follow her dreams, etc.

Now the incoherent “conclusion.” Alex goes to her audition. Even though this is the ballet academy, she plays “Flashdance” the song and does her jerky, unstudied dance moves. By the end, the judges are tapping their feet and seemingly impressed at her raw, “street” moves. Then she comes outside, Nick is there, he bought her roses, they smile at each other—and freeze frame, the end. So there is NO resolution. We don’t find out whether she was accepted, or even if she wasn’t laughed out of the place, because the audition scene just ends. Presumably she and Nick are going to work out their issues—and presumably, Alex is now okay with him pulling strings on her behalf rather than rely on her own talent, another thing which makes it kind of about an immature young woman and her sugar daddy.

I was surprised to see that there’s no resolution, as I’d always remembered it that she wowed the jury, who were happy to let someone into their ballet troupe who cannot dance ballet, because she’s just such an awesome gal, and she just “feels” it, and that’s all that matters. My friend always saw it differently, as a kind of Rocky thing, where she does her modern dance in front of them in defiance, knowing there’s no way she’ll get in, but happy just to audition. We both agreed we were surprised to find there is any room for interpretation in this thing at all.

Anyway, much worse than remembered. It really is just crap, although you can definitely say that it is influential crap, that ultimately led to movies as a whole getting worse. In retrospect, that historical angle comes out… mainly the introducing of “quirky” characters who don’t have to study anything, so long as they just “feel” it. The whole age-difference angle was much more apparent this time, as mentioned, coming dangerously close to becoming the primary content of the film. And then there’s all the general stuff about following your dreams, and all the people we meet in the bar, all trying to make it in various ways, none of which we ever get the resolution of. And with Alex’s situation having no resolution, the whole thing is just a kind of mood piece about having dreams and good friends, good beer, and exciting new relationships before any kind of reality comes treading in.

I can’t really recommend watching it. It’s not all that fun and doesn’t leave one with that much. Just best to know what it is, know its place, and let it fade into history. Oh, but can I tell you the best piece of trivia for this movie? The director’s post was offered to Brian De Palma [you can only imagine] and… wait for it… David Cronenberg! Can you imagine a David Cronenberg Flashdance? You have tom imagine with him it would become something like Fleshdance and she’d be a dancer and a welder who finds that her flesh is falling off or mutating… either way, something fascinating, and much better than what we ended up with.

Should you watch it: 

You don’t really need to.

Comments

Your descriptions of quirky characters living in warehouses reminds me of Diva and Desperately Seeking Susan which ripped it off. Do you think Flashdance was influenced by Diva too?

That probably was an influence... it seems like something Adrian Lyne would see and want to bring that style to an American film... That's a smart connection, thanks.

Demi Moore was also in the running for the lead role, and rumour has it that Beals got the role because the producer asked a bunch of guys "which girl is more fuckable" and they picked Jennifer over Demi.

To add to indignity, Beals revealed years later that during the rehearsals for the scene where she gets water dumped on her, some crew members left pee and/or condoms (hopefully not used) in the water, which was also ice cold.

The only thing that was even positive about the film was the theme song by Irene Cara and Maniac by Michael Sembello. Speaking of Mr. Sembello, I urge you to go on YouTube and check out his performance of the song on American Bandstand. Not only is it hilarious seeing his keyboard player awkwardly stare at the camera, but Michael looks like a cross between Al from Home Improvement and Jack Radcliffe in a black wifebeater that shows off the goods.

Thanks for the direction to that YouTube clip... I would say we definitely have an early bear in Sembello, and even then he seemed like someone NOT at all suited for mainstream attention who suddenly popped in for a moment, purely by accident. It definitely seems like a moment in which gay culture suddenly raised its head in the mainstream, although I can't find any mention of Sembello being gay...