Tuesday, April 24, 2018
Director Report Card: Adrian Lyne (1983)
When “Flashdance” came out in 1983, there were few expectations for it. The film had no major stars. The reviews were largely negative. However, the movie connected with audiences. Partially propelled by a hit soundtrack, it quickly becoming one of the most popular films of the year. Even then, who would've guessed that “Flashdance” would've become one of the most iconic and widely parodied movies of the eighties? Rodney Dangerfield riffed on it. The Gremlins riffed on it. Elvira riffed on it. Even Snoopy riffed on it. By the time Jennifer Lopez based a music video on the film, “Flashdance” was entrenched as a cultural touchstone. Even recently, a poster for “Deadpool 2” spoofs the film. Would you believe I've never seen the movie before now?
Alex Owens is an eighteen year old girl, living on her own in Pittsburgh. During the day, she works a menial job as a welder in a steel mill. At night, she pursues her passion: Dance. She dances in a sleazy club but dreams of getting into a prestigious academy. However, she worries that her lack of professional experience makes her odds of succeeding unlikely. She has other struggles in her life. Her boss at the mill, Nick, begins to pursue her romantically. Her best friend has dreams of her own, aspiring to become a figure skater. But dance drives Alex above everything else.
“Flashdance” is, without a question, a somewhat campy artifact of the eighties. This is, after all, a movie primarily about a stripper that doesn't actually take her clothes off. The plot, of a young girl desperate to pursue her dreams above all else, is derivative of a hundred other movies. (And would be ripped off a hundred times afterwards.) There's definitely some melodramatic touches to the story's presentation. The film is primarily a delivery system for its dance numbers. The fashion, from the permed hair to various pastel colored clothes, is insanely dated. It's easy to see why critics would turn their noses up at this in 1983.
Despite being strictly a product of the Reagan era, when attitudes about sex and women were still somewhat reductive, “Flashdance” comes off as surprisingly modern. Alex is not seduced by Nick. She invites him back to her apartment, slowly undressing for him in a genuinely erotic sequence. It's her decision to have sex. Later, in another famous scene, she makes a rather graphic advancement towards him in a restaurant. She does not let her relationship with Nick define her and outright refuses his help on several occasions. Furthermore, Alex is never judged for her work in the club. This seemingly sex-positive attitude only goes so far though. When Hanna gets a job in a sleazier bar, one where the strippers actually do take their clothes off, Alex gets pretty angry with her about it. Our protagonist also has some Catholic guilt of her own. But considering the time and place, “Flashdance” is still pretty progressive.
“Flashdance” was part of a wave of films in the early eighties that blurred the line between movie and music video. The movie fits in well with other eighties dance flicks like “Fame,” “Footloose,” and “Dirty Dancing.” Alex's dance routines in the club – which strike me as far more elaborate than a club that dingy and rowdy would ever be willing to indulge – are filmed more-or-less like music videos. The famous first dance, where she moves in a red slip, pounds a chair, and drenches herself in water, is actually one of the film's more restrained moments. Compared that to the bizarre moment where Alex dances against a sterile white wall while wearing kakuki-style face paint, lights strobbing on and off. Lyne's flashy direction is not limited to these dance scenes. Hanna's ice skating routine, where the camera glides along the ice with her, or a completely ridiculous workout sequence are equally music video-like in their presentation.
its Pittsburgh setting the same way “Foxes” took advantage of its San Fernado Valley setting. Some of the most naturalistic scenes in the film simply watch Alex as she goes from place to place in the city streets, frequently riding her bike. She'll stop to watch a break dancer. Or will sit on a cable car for a while. While the film is not remotely realistic, you can see Lyne trying to ground the material in some sort of reality.
Yet the dancing is the star of the show. The dancing was such a monumental part of “Flashdance's” success that, when it was discovered that most of the dancing was performed by a double, Jennifer Beals' career never quite recovered. (Despite it being pretty obvious when the double takes over.) Truthfully, the dance choreography in “Flashdance” is so iconic that it's difficult to judge. The shots of Alex's legs and thighs, clad in a leotard and leg warmers, stepping wildly around the floor are widely parodied. As silly as those club scenes get, there's a definite infectious energy to them. The climatic dance, where Alex impresses the academy board, is indeed triumphant.
And, yeah, the soundtrack is pretty good. Irene Cara's Academy Award winning theme song was a breakthrough pop hit for a reason. It is insanely catchy. The way the music rises from slow and introspective to pumping and jubilant is impressive. Yes, the chorus of voices that join Cara during the last part of the song are ridiculously eighties. But it totally works for the song. The song was co-written by Giorgio Moroder. Returning from “Foxes,” Moroder also provides the movie's score. It's largely electronic and sometimes seems a little out-of-place with the movie.
It's well known trivia that Sembello was originally inspired by William Lustig's notorious 1980 sleaze-slasher of the same name. When the producers of “Flashdance” heard the song, they asked him to shift the subject from a serial killer to a young dancer. That was probably a wise move, though I've always wanted to hear the original version. Also appearing on the soundtrack is Joe Esposito's overwrought “Lady, Lady, Lady” and Joan Jett's “I Love Rock n' Roll,” whose appearance is a little on the nose.
“Flashdance” has its flaws. The most serious of which is that none of the subplots are especially effective. Such as the love story between Alex and Nick. Michael Nouri is mildly charming in the part and has decent chemistry with Beals. However, the romance is mostly secondary to the actual plot. A turn where Alex becomes concerned that Nick is cheating on her is totally unnecessary. So is the eventual reveal that the woman is his ex-wife and also a huge bitch. The very end of the movie has her forgiving him basically out of the blue.
Yet even the romance is more interesting than the movie's other subplots. Richie, the bar's cook, hopes to become a stand-up comic. His material leans heavily on Polock jokes. He eventually moves out to California, comes back, and then disappears from the movie. Hanna's story, her dream of becoming a skater which she abandons in favor of stripping, seems to parallel Alex's. Yet, if there's any point to this particular sideline, it never comes to anything. I honestly wonder if these story points were included more to pad the movie out than contribute to its story or themes.
Jerry Bruckheimer. Bruckheimer, of course, would become one of a reigning action producer while Eszterhas' career as Hollywood's highest paid screenwriter burned brightly if briefly. (Financially speaking, anyway. Whether Eszterhas' frequently lazy and trashy work ever had any artistic value is still a matter of debate.) Lyne's dramatic direction obviously played a big role in “Flashdance's” success and he would basically build his career on it. This is a silly movie but pretty fun. [Grade: B]