Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 5, 2020)
Movies don’t get much more definitively and stereotypically “Eighties” than 1983’s Flashdance. Who can see legwarmers – a fashion trend inspired by the film – and not immediately think of that decade?
Set in Pittsburgh, 18-year-old Alex Owens (Jennifer Beals) maintains two different lives. During the day, she works as a welder at a steel mill, but at night, she performs as a dancer at a club.
In her heart, Alex dreams of something greater, and she aspires to ballet training and a career in that field. That takes her on a challenging path.
As Alex pursues this seemingly improbable goal, she also enters a romance with Nick Hurley (Michael Nouri), the owner of the steel mill. Though she feels reluctant to get involved with the boss, her emotions guide her as she attempts to balance her love life with her career goals.
I was 16 when Flashdance hit the screens, and I recalled it more as a success in terms of fashion – those legwarmers, the sweatshirts worn off the shoulder – and music than as a movie. Oh, I knew the film made money, but in my memory, those ticket sales seemed secondary to its impact elsewhere.
Apparently 37-year-old recollections proved faulty, as a look at 1983 charts shows Flashdance became a considerable hit. While it couldn’t quite crack the $100 million mark in the US, its $92 million allowed it to become the third highest-grossing flick of the year.
First place went to mega-smash Return of the Jedi, whereas Tears of Endearment found its way to second. Given its tear-jeaker story, Terms seems like an odd flick to earn the silver for 1983, but at least it enjoyed major stars.
On the other hand, Flashdance came from a largely untested director and a cast of unknowns. Very much of its time, it managed to both milk trends and prompt its own.
None of which make it an actual good movie, and 37 years later, the flaws seem more apparent than they did back in 1983. In particular, Flashdance shows the influence of music videos, and not in a positive way.
1983 was a massive year for videos, back when they became truly mainstream and a large impact on music sales. Flashdance borrows from those visual and editing techniques in a manner that probably seemed fresh back then.
Circa 2020, however, these choices feel less inspired and they come across more as window-dressing to hide the movie’s inherent flimsiness. Make no mistake: Flashdance offers the thinnest of plots, one that consists more of story points than an actual narrative with fleshed-out characters.
To a considerable degree, Flashdance feels like a female-oriented remake of another cultural sensation, 1977’s Saturday Night Fever. Both focused on working class leads who aspired to a better life through dance, and they also focused heavily on musical sequences.
The difference comes from the execution. Whereas Fever involved well-drawn characters, Flashdance never bothers with anything beyond thin clichés. Alex offers nothing more than the nice girl who wants to get ahead, and Nick doesn’t even get that much development.
While Fever’s Tony follows a clear arc, Alex just kind of meanders. We get less of a sense that she follows a particular path toward her goals, as instead she simply wanders from one vaguely-connected scene to another with little coherence or logic.
In addition, Fever used its music and dance to advance the characters and plot, whereas these exist as entities unto themselves in Flashdance. Almost none of the musical segments appear as anything other than music videos plopped into the middle of the movie.
And I mean that nearly literally, as Flashdance often grinds to a halt so we can watch Alex and/or her pals frolic to pop tunes. Our intro to Alex as a nightclub dancer makes sense, but otherwise, these sequences act as nothing more than flashy filler.
As such, we find ourselves with a pointless workout montage, and we also get stuck with a nightclub routine from one of Alex's friends. It’s like the filmmakers got bored with the “story” and decided they needed an unrelated music video to spice up the proceedings.
At its heart, Flashdance boasts a simple, straightforward plot, but it gets so hung up on pointless tangents that it never connects. We find ourselves stuck with supporting roles and random themes, none of which do much to expand the basic narrative.
A fairly lackluster cast doesn’t help – especially at the top, where Beals seems bland and unconvincing as Alex. She displays precious little personality and never makes Alex seem like a real person.
The more experienced Nouri does a little better with his underwritten role, but he doesn’t seem particularly compelling either. Beals and Nouri exhibit little chemistry and form a dull couple.
It doesn’t help that the movie uses a hilariously obvious “dance double” for Alex’s climactic audition. Not for one second do we believe Beals does her own performance there, and the disconnect makes this “big moment” laughable.
Why did we like this movie so much in 1983? I can’t figure it out, as Flashdance becomes nothing more than a boring collection of musical scenes in search of a compelling story.