No. 3: Flashdance

Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

By far the most baffling title in the top ten list from the 1983 box office, Flashdance became a massive commercial success and remains to this day a major cultural touchstone in spite of being an absolutely, unequivocally awful movie. It was trashed by nearly every critic upon its release in April of 1983 and from the few reviews I’ve read, the critics back did nothing but point out the obvious: that this is a poorly directed weak script performed by mediocre actors. And yet the movie prevailed at the box office, not just as a surprising sleeper hit but as one of the most spectacular success stories of the early ’80s, hauling in almost $95 million domestically. That’s the equivalent of a 2011 film grossing $205 million – and we’re talking about a dance movie!

I should clarify what I mean by dance movie, since there’s not really a generally accepted name for this subgenre of movies that was essentially started by Fame in 1980. My best attempt at a description would be to say a dance movie is a film about professional dancers and plays out in a plot structure similar to that of sports movies, only in this case the sport is dance. The difference is that rather than trying to “win” at a sport, the characters in dance movies are striving to express themselves or achieve some kind of personal milestone through dance. A few good examples of this genre would be Footloose, Dirty Dancing and more recently movies like Center Stage and Step Up.

I confess I’ve always had a tough time understanding the appeal of this genre, though it’s clear to me that there’s a huge portion of the population that absolutely can’t get enough. I asked a friend of the FilmNerds crew, Suzanne Flanagan (who works with the famed Martha Graham Dance Company in New York and also happens to be the sister of FilmNerds contributors Graham and Ben Flanagan) for some insight into this subgenre, of which she admits to being a big fan:

“I think dance movies have wide appeal because their story lines are highlighted with raw talent. Like any sports movie, you’re getting that ‘wow factor’ mixed in with the American dream. Often, these movies are about characters defying the odds, and proving someone wrong. This scenario is the perfect recipe for a montage- which are always my favorite scenes.

I like dance movies because I like dance; it’s plain and simple, I love to be entertained. Dance is an expressive extension of the excitement and drama that we crave when sitting still for a movie.”

Suzanne also explained that as a fan of dance in general she enjoys watching older dance films to see the evolution of choreography over the years, certainly a scholarly pursuit that I have respect for although I don’t believe most fans of Flashdance appreciate it for its value as a historical document of early ’80s choreography.

One thing that Suzanne touched on there that I think is a very big part of this movie’s success (as well as the success of the genre as a whole) is the prominent role of musical montages in the film. Many critics (including Roger Ebert who absolutely excoriates the movie in his original review here) pointed out that the film seemed to be a series of loosely strung together musical montages that seemed more focused on fast-paced cutting, flashy imagery and music than on advancing the story or developing the characters. While I’d hardly want to call Flashdance a misunderstood film, I do think the critics at the time were incorrectly perceiving this clearly intentional directorial choice as unintentionally bad directing and editing work.

Two years before Flashdance hit theaters, MTV hit the airwaves and redefined the way American teenagers experienced music. Dance became a much bigger part of the music industry as it was very commonly featured in early music videos and I believe director Adrian Lyne’s experience as a commercial and music video director led him to immediately see the potential connection between what MTV was doing and what the viewers of a movie like Flashdance would like to see. Fortunately for Lyne, he had quite an impressive soundtrack to pull from for his self-contained music videos within the movie.

The Flashdance soundtrack album, composed largely of songs written by pop songwriter Giorgio Moroder (whose work we’ve already heard in Scarface and Superman III) was one of the first examples of a soundtrack and a film working in synergy to help drive sales for one another. Moroder’s title track “Flashdance…What a Feeling” performed by Irene Cara won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1983 and helped lead the way for the soundtrack album’s stunning 700,000 sales in the first two weeks of release. The soundtrack actually spawned a second Oscar nominated song, Michael Sembello’s mega-hit “Maniac”, but the song was later disqualified after it came to light that the song was written years before the film was even in production.

Most of the songs are used in sequences involving either star Jennifer Beals rehearsing or auditioning or one of her fellow “exotic dancers” at the nightclub she works in performing for the patrons. One of the major points picked on by many critics was the fact that this so-called strip club named Mawby’s features girls doing very intense dances on staged essentially fully clothed (meanwhile down the street the “evil” strip club features actual nudity). It’s an utterly absurd plot point but in a movie with so many other absurdities (like the fact that an 18-year-old girl has a job at a steel welding factory), it’s only a drop in the bucket of madness.

As self-contained music videos, many of these sequences are pretty impressive to look at, particularly the ice skating sequence about halfway through the film set to Laura Branigan’s pop hit “Gloria”. Lyne shows off his mastery of the frenetic filmmaking that had become so popular in commercials and music videos of the day and although the sequence has essentially nothing to do with the rest of the movie (the ice skater herself is a completely pointless character who has no impact on the life of our lead heroine) it does oddly grab my attention.

Probably the most famous sequence from the film, Alex’s rehearsal for the prestigious conservatory she’s been trying all these weeks to get into, was embroiled in a bit of controversy in the years following the film’s release when it was learned that Beals did very little of the actual dancing. In fact, three separate body doubles (including a man named Crazy Legs) substituted in for Beals during the more intense dance moves and the editing of the sequence, again criticized heavily by most critics, was almost completely geared toward trying to conceal the faces of the body doubles rather than being a creative choice by Lyne.

Despite the film’s overwhelming success at the box office, almost none of the participants went on to reach the heights they reached in Flashdance ever again, with the exception of Lyne who scored another massive and Oscar-nominated hit in 1987 with Fatal Attraction and two other popular sexy thrillers with Indecent Proposal in 1993 and Unfaithful in 2002. Beals made very little impact in the years following Flashdance and recently had a bit of a comeback as a TV star on Showtime’s The L Word and a handful of other rather unremarkable TV shows. Her male co-star Michael Nouri had an even less remarkable post-Flashdance career, starring mostly in TV movies and soap operas.

Sequel plans never materialized and even a recent attempt to create a Broadway musical based on the movie with music by Moroder couldn’t get off the ground. I think the weakness of the story has essentially kept the film from taking life in any other form but the phenomenal popularity of the music and the iconic dance sequences within the film will ensure this film’s long-term status as a cultural phenomenon of its time and a perfect time capsule of 1983 American pop culture.


DOWNLOAD: Back to the Movies Podcast – Flashdance (with guest Francesca Scalici)


Next Up: Jack Nicholson and Shirley McClain attempt to wring tears from my stony face in Terms of Endearment.