30 years ago, you couldn’t escape it. The hot young babe in the lead role. The fashion trend she unintentionally started. And, most especially, the music. Whether you turned on the TV or the radio (or your mom ran a dance studio), you were bound at some point to hear something from its mega-selling soundtrack.
Flashdance was, in a word, unavoidable. When it arrived in theatres in the spring of 1983, I was much too young to see it. Now, after it quietly celebrated a milestone this past April, I finally sat down recently to watch it. Quite frankly, after all these years, I’ve now learned that it’s nothing more than a series of music videos interrupted by occasional wit and mostly forgettable melodrama.
Lovely Jennifer Beals plays 18-year-old Alex, a welder by day, bar dancer by night and guilt-ridden Catholic in between. She lives alone in an old warehouse with her trusty pooch, Grunt, where she secretly harbours a dream to become a great ballerina. Unfortunately, when it comes time for her to apply to a high-falutin’ dance repertory in her city she can’t even bring herself to take an application, let alone fill one out. Her kindly mentor, Hanna (the late Lilia Skalia), a former dancer herself, urges her to just go for it already.
So, what’s holding her back? Two things: her lack of formal training and her fear. (Lucky applicants are invited to audition in front of a panel of five judges which can be quite intimidating.) The closest she actually comes to living her fantasy is dancing (but not stripping, curiously) at Mawby’s Bar where her friend Jeanie (the late Sunny Johnson) works as a waitress but also aspires to be a great figure skater.
Now this is where the movie loses credibility. As I remember vividly from news reports during the film’s initial release, Beals doesn’t do much of her character’s dancing (which isn’t all that spectacular anyway). With the exception of close-ups, that’s French dancer Marine Jahan doing most of the work. And you can clearly tell, too, especially during the strobe light routine. Honestly, the filmmakers were deluded if they thought they pulled off the old switcheroo here. Once you notice the difference, you can’t unnotice it.
Also not helping matters is Alex’s on-again/off-again relationship with her much older boss (Michael Nouri from The Hidden and The OC) who doesn’t even know at first that she’s working for him until one of his employees points this out to him during one of her early performances at Mawby’s. (For some odd reason, the underling gives out her Social Security number as a clue. As if anyone, except the NSA, would recognize someone’s identity like that.)
Despite rebuffing his early offers for dates numerous times, after confessing to her priest that she’s constantly thinking about sex (without giving the reason why), they eventually hook up. Sadly, there’s very little sizzle in this utterly unconvincing May-December romance. But there are a couple of obligatory fights. One based on a misunderstanding, the other which greatly affects her future. Neither of which is worth caring about.
The hairstyles aren’t the only things badly dated in Flashdance. There’s also Jeanie’s boyfriend, Richie (an obnoxious Kyle T. Heffner), who works as a short-order cook at Mawby’s but also foolishly moonlights as perhaps the worst stand-up comedian ever. His specialty? Racist Polish jokes. (A bit of advice, fella: laughing at your own hack material doesn’t it make it funnier. Ask Bill Maher.)
When Richie briefly departs for Los Angeles to try to make it big, Jeanie starts dating Johnny C. (the absolutely convincing Fear frontman Lee Ving), a sleazy strip club promoter who likes to grope and use the word “cunts”, yet still manages to get Alex’s pal to come strip for him. (Money talks, people.) He’s very lucky he only gets beer poured in his lap.
Why has Jeanie chosen such a soul crushing path for her life? Well, after falling on her ass twice during a try-out for a professional figure skating show (the only sequence where Richie actually made me laugh, by the way), she’s pretty much given up on her dream. (That’s odd. When she’s just goofing around practicing with Alex on the ice, she’s actually quite good. Then again, this wasn’t her first failed audition.) It’s a good thing she has such a concerned friend willing to rescue her from this empty future. Otherwise, she’d be completely stuck.
The late Phil Bruns (the original Morty Seinfeld) plays Jeanie’s dad in easily the film’s best performance. Deeply unimpressed with Richie, he’s very skeptical that his daughter will ever be good enough for the Ice Capades. Despite being humourously grumpy and unsupportive, after she craps out on the ice he reveals his big heart and cheers her up with a funny joke about her missed jumps. Too bad he’s not in every scene.
For a film with such a massive selling soundtrack, it’s surprising how much of it now is hit and miss. While even I can’t deny the irresistibility of retro gems like Maniac, Laura Branigan’s Gloria and Joan Jett’s I Love Rock & Roll (the latter two are only heard in the movie, though), it’s far easier to reject Manhunt, Seduce Me Tonight or that goddamned What A Feeling, the latter of which is played way too often. (How it beat out Maniac for the Best Original Song Oscar I’ll never fully compute.) As for Giorgio Moroder’s musical score, I particularly enjoyed his recurring instrumental love theme which is simply too good for such a weak romantic storyline.
By the time we reach the end, you realize something immediately. You’ve already seen most, if not all of Alex’s big audition for the repertory company countless times before in the video for What A Feeling many years earlier which features two other professional dancers, besides the aforementioned Jahan, substituting for Beals. One does the jumping somersault (that’s acro, not ballet), the other does all the break dancing (always fun to watch but again, not ballet). As the end credits roll, you’re left with an overall feeling of, “That’s it?”
Looking back, Flashdance was clearly conceived as something of a feminist statement. Alex is the only female welder working in a male-dominated company who wholeheartedly embrace her as one of their own. (There’s a very funny scene where they applaud her first reconciliation with Nouri after a nasty public fight at work.) She saves her friend from wasting her life in a strip joint. And despite being a confessional Catholic, she completely owns her sexuality unashamedly.
At the same time, she needs a well-connected man to help her achieve her dream which inspires her to occasionally starve herself in a business that’s not exactly supremely supportive of women like her.
Talk about a conflicting message.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, September 3, 2013