Film Review: "Flashdance" (1983, directed by Adrian Lyne)

By 1983, a couple of years into the MTV era, movie studio executives apparently began to wonder what would happen if the principles and forms of the music video were applied to a full-length feature film. "Flashdance" is what happened.

I could say that "Flashdance" is the story of an aspiring dancer who works as a welder by day but calling what happens in the film a story is being a bit generous. Over the course of the film there are characters, who do stuff, and talk to each other, and get into conflicts, some of them romantic in nature. The result, though, is not really a story but rather an accumulation of the kind of vague narrative vignettes that became common accoutrements to music videos: dramatizations that serve no dramatic purpose but exist simply so that there are dramatic-looking moving pictures to see while (or before, or after) the music plays. "Flashdance," as a result, does not have a very coherent plot. Indeed, much of it unfolds as if there wasn't in fact any script at all.

The film has become famous for the imagery of Jennifer Beals sweating and strutting in her dance performances. Beals, who plays the aspiring dancer, Alex, puts in a career-making performance, not because of its quality, but merely because of its notoriety. The supposed dramatic tension in the film derives from Alex's desire to be admitted to a fancy dance school, but this entire arc is introduced flaccidly and just left hanging for much of the film. Alex is surrounded by a cast of stock characters: a best friend, an aspiring ice skater who can't skate and instead becomes a stripper; a wisecracking male sidekick, a short order cook who is an aspiring, and embarassingly bad, comedian; a tall, dark and handsome love interest (her boss at her welding job, played by Michael Nouri); a loving and encouraging grandma who dies on her (an underutilized Lilia Skala).

As hackneyed as the narrative elements of the film are, the visual imagery, as might be expected of a feature-length music video, is relatively stronger. The cinematography (by Don Peterson) has an intriguingly gritty feel that does a good job of exploiting the quasi-story's Pittsburgh setting (especially as Alex bicycles all over the city). A few of the dance sequences are striking, such as Alex's opening number featuring cascading water (see picture above) and a later, new-wavy performance with a glowing TV screen, black light, and Alex in whiteface.

These visual strengths, though, combined with the film's famous music--the iconic title song by Irene Cara, Michael Sembello's "Maniac," in addition to a synthesizer-happy score by Giorgio Moroder--only serve to accentuate the film's narrative weaknesses. In the broader scheme of American cinema, "Flashdance" was nonetheless successful in marrying MTV visuals and popular music in a fashion that could inhabit a feature film and appeal to 1980s audiences. Other films would soon follow that did this kind of thing much better--"Footloose," for example--but "Flashdance," in spite of its glaring ineptitude, has the distinction of having done them first.

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