What a feeling! Grab your leg warmers and can of Aqua Net as we hit the dance floor to celebrate the cultural phenomenon that was and still is Flashdance.
The Oscar (and Grammy) winning dance movie Flashdance turns 40 this year on April 15th. Can you believe it’s been four decades since the iconic movie defined the music, dance, and fashion of the 1980s??? Forty years of electrifying music and dance that dazzles the senses. Winning the late Irene Cara and legendary composer Giorgio Moroder the Best Original Song Oscar and Grammy for Flashdance…What a Feeling! (Moroder was also nominated in the same year for his Scarface score) and earning Michael Sembello an Oscar nomination for Maniac, the titular 80s movie Flashdance remains an icon of music and dance that has transcended the decades and continues to be emulated in other media today. This is not a movie to be taken seriously; it’s a movie to be felt and experienced. And to its credit, it has remained popular. Take your passion and make it happen!
In case you are new to planet earth, Flashdance tells the story of Alex Owens (Jennifer Beals), a beautiful young woman who works a day job in a steel mill in Pittsburgh and dances in a bar at night. When Alex discovers that her handsome boss, Nick Hurley (Michael Nouri), is both interested in her and supportive of her performing career, she renews her efforts to get accepted into a prestigious dance conservatory. Although Alex is frightened of failure, she is cheered on by Nick, as well as by her mentor, former ballet performer Hanna Long (Lilia Skala).
More than a cultural smash hit, it was a tremendous success at the box offie too, because Flashdance is the third highest grossing film of 1983 behind Return of the Jedi and Terms of Endearment. In retrospect, this movie is veritably responsible for reviving the modern movie musical with its sexy complex dance sequences, bold fashion, and use of popular music.
Not many films can be recognized by a single shot, this is expressly true with those that may not have even seen the film, but Flashdance is instantly recognized by Beals’ silhouette leaning back on the chair with water dousing her. That cinematic moment has been parodied and paid tribute to in dozens of movies and TV shows from Elvira: Mistress of the Dark to Family Guy and even Deadpool 2. From Beals’ off-the-shoulder grey sweatshirt in the famous bra-removal scene to her knee-high leg warmers, bikini bottoms, and taut physique, many scenes in this movie will forever be engrained in our minds. It’s remarkable how this cheesy, low-budget dance film influenced the culture of an entire decade and continues to reassert itself in popular culture to this day. The incomparable footprint left by this movie can be felt everywhere.
It’s funny, whenever critics and fans talk about Flashdance, it’s almost never about the plot. Is there anything inordinately wrong with the plot–no–but there is nothing particularly remarkable or subversive about it either. It’s a simple variation of the rags to riches story or simply realizing a dream despite obstacles. At the intersection of performance art and motion pictures is where this movie lies, and lies there incredibly comfortably and confidently.
Flashdance is a movie which uses a paper-thin plot to connect sequences of montages and dance numbers, one right after the other–yet–somehow audiences, for forty years, are raptured by the music and dance. I cannot think of another movie that defied the odds of success and became a legitimate classic in the way Flashdance did.
It’s as if Bruckheimer and Adrian Lyne studied the elements of what makes a movie successful in the box office (and in popular culture), and then took those basic elements and loosely connected them together. Catchy music, bold fashion, sexy or provocative dances, mild/brief nudity, and relatable characters, these are the elements that Bruckheimer and Lyne put together in order to create movie magic and fantastic success. Then cap it all off with pure, unfiltered triumph in front of those that once looked down upon, and were skeptical of the central character.
Never once do you buy that Alex is a welder; furthermore, in retrospect, it’s clear that there are multiple people serving as the dancing Alex (which is something that is film is widely known and yet rocks it!). But it doesn’t matter. Why? Because it’s nearly impossible to watch this movie and not get drawn into its glitzy fantasy! But while we are on the topic of the Alex’ dancing in the film, I feel it’s important to highlight the talent that brought the exotic dancing to life! Working as Beals’ dancing body-doubles were accomplished dancers Marine Jahan, Sharon Shapiro, and breakdancer Richard “Crazy Legs” Colón.
Despite the contrived plot, the movie is not without deeper meaning. Some of the themes that can be closely read in Flashdance concern ideas such as identity, class, and cultural norms/expectations whether or not there is any absolution. Without stooping to pedantic commentary, the movie provides thoughtful content for those that seek a greater understanding of what the film has to say about the human experience. “When you give up your dream, you die.” A bit cliche perhaps, but still serves as the reminder that we do need our dreams in order to have something toward which we strive. We may never experience or realize that dream, but it’s the pursuit that is most meaningful.
We witness that there are many layers to Alex; she is a complex individual with multiple interests. She is just as confident and comfortable on a dance floor as she is welding as she is at a fine dining restaurant. This is such an important message that continues to be relevant–if not even more so–today! Flashdance is a reminder that diversity within a given group is so very important. Often times, popular culture projects prejudices, behaviors, and expectations onto a given group of people (or onto an individual within a group). Diversity of groups of people should never mean uniformity of thought within that group, it means there are a variety of individuals within any given group of people that have their own fears, beliefs, goals, and dreams. Alex may be a woman, but she is by no means obligated to only behave like a typical woman. Neither does she disparage those that would behave more typically; this movie celebrates variety! Variety of dance, variety of music, variety of people.
The degree to which this movie influenced virtually every area of popular culture is incalculable. Even exercise videos changed overnight. I posit that it’s entirely possible that 80s and 90s aerobics videos wouldn’t be the same if it wasn’t for Flashdance. For example, the footprint of this movie can be seen in the music, movements, and fashion of those Jane Fonda style aerobics videos. Even descendants of this stylistic athletic fashion can be observed in nearly every downtown and suburban area today; but we now refer to it as athleisure apparel.
Flashdance is the very definition of a crowd-pleasing film that defied the expectations of critics in 1983 and continues to be beloved by contemporary critics and audiences of all walks of life. The legacy of this movie is felt throughout media of all kinds! Even those that have never seen the movie recognize it by the music or iconic water dance shot. It’s a light-hearted melodrama that you cannot help but love. Just close your eyes, and feel the timeless rhythm of Flashdance!
Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa and is a member of the Critics Association of Central Florida and Indie Film Critics of America. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter. If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.