I don't know, maybe you had to be there. I completely missed out on Flashdance when it was released, to enormous box office, in spring of 1983; being seven years old, my chances of seeing an R-rated movie about an exotic dancer were pretty slim. By the time I was old enough to see it on my own, it had become a joke--a compilation of '80s music, fashion, and excess. Nothing was less cool in the '90s than the '80s, but everything that's old is new again, so I find myself taking in Flashdance for the first time, as part of Paramount's I Love The 80's film collection (I'll only use that apostrophe when quoting the title of the series--as my colleague Jamie S. Rich has noted, you don't plural with an apostrophe-s, and there's no conjunction on the end, and there's no possessive of 80 here... but I digress). To put it mildly, it hasn't aged well. To put it bluntly, it stinks.
There is a danger, of course, in trying to view a film that so infested pop culture this far after its release with anything resembling fresh eyes. It has been parodied and duplicated ad nauseum, yes, but most of it was clichéd when it came out. Indeed, the level of inventiveness is on display from the opening sequence, in which the welder takes off the face mask and...shakes her hair back! Holy crap, that there welder is a girl!
That welder girl is Alex (Jennifer Beals), who does hard labor all day and hard dancing all night. She dreams of becoming a ballet dancer, but for now she shakes her thang at Mawbry's Bar, one of those improbable movie nudie bars where the girls don't actually get naked, but the working-class patrons applaud and cheer politely anyway (see Tango & Cash for another sighting of this rarest of establishments).
The bar is inhabited by a goofy crew of "colorful" characters; the most loathsome is Ritchie (Kyle T. Heffner), a short order cook who fancies himself a comic and even gets a shot on-stage, where the script shows its cluelessness about comedy by having him score big with a series of Pollack cracks (you half-expect him to segue into some killer knock-knock jokes). Alex bonds with the other dancers, to a degree--of course, in the screenplay by two dudes, all women do when they're alone is talk about men.
Early in the film, Alex's construction site boss, Nick (blandly played by Michael Nouri), comes to the club and realizes that she works for him; he keeps coming to the club until she'll go out with him. Nowadays that'd be, you know, stalking and sexual harassment, but hey, different time. After the obligatory "falling in love" music montage, their little misunderstandings kill a good chunk of the running time, along with Alex's continued struggle to work up the nerve to audition for a prestigious dance program. Wanna guess how everything turns out?
The screenplay is credited to Thomas Hedley Jr. and the king of soulless high-concept junk, Joe Eszterhas (Sliver, Showgirls, Jade). Not a cliché stone is left unturned--of course Alex lives in a huge loft with a slobbering dog, of course she's best friends with a feisty old broad (and if you think that lady's making it through the picture alive, I've got some Fannie Mae stock to sell you), of course Alex sees her boss with another woman and assumes the worst, of course, of course, of course. A tin ear for dialogue ("If you give up your dream... you'll die!") and lack of concern for loose ends permeates, while Eszterhas' trademark misogyny is also showcased; if anyone else thought up the ridiculously gratuitous, softcore "workout" scene, I'll eat my hat.
Flashdance was also the first big hit for Adrian Lyne, the stylish auteur of empty-headed sexcapades like Fatal Attraction, 9 1/2 Weeks, and Indecent Proposal (though, in all fairness, I did admire his Jacob's Ladder and Unfaithful). Here, he wallows in the 80s style excess, bathing every possible scene in neons and harsh backlight. The dance numbers, however, have to be seen to be believed. Most are just plain ridiculous, but the standout is an unintentionally hilarious train wreck of kabuki makeup, strobe lights, and an MTV-ready set (again, performed on-stage at a Pittsburgh bar, a perfectly logical home for avant-garde interpretive dance).
Beals is charismatic and likable in the lead role, but she can only do so much with this script. She's given a list of affectations rather than a character to play, and even she can't save her big soul-baring monologue. "Some nights I just can't wait to get up there," she says softly, a big tear rolling down each cheek, "just so I can disappear." And then she takes Nick's hand and puts it inside her shirt. Her character has no arc; in one scene she's literally screaming at Nick, which prompts a weak, half-assed reconciliation; in the very next scene she's all but mounting him in a restaurant before revealing herself to be nearly naked under a tuxedo jacket (again, that ridiculous scene has Eszteras' greasy, callused hands all over it).
More distressing are the dance scenes, in which every shot that wasn't a tight face close-up was doubled by a dancer named Marine Jahan. This was apparently a big secret at the time, though watching the film now, it's impossible to believe that anyone thought Beals wasn't being doubled. The dance scenes (and even her workout moments) are an obvious amalgamation of body-part close-ups, backlit silhouettes, and poses awkwardly arranged to hide Jahan's face.
But the big audition scene is the worst. This isn't a dark nightclub with stage lights; it's a big, well-lit room in broad daylight, and even in the medium wide shots, it clearly, clearly isn't Beals. Who bought into this? It's an iconic scene by now, but it simply doesn't play, because it's so obviously not her. Seldom has artifice and technique so thoroughly subverted a climax. It fits the film that precedes it though--it's glossy and slick, just don't look too closely.
Flashdance is seeing its third DVD release as part of the I Love The 80's collection. It was first released as a bare-bones edition in 2002, followed by the expected double-dip
"Special Collector's Edition" in September of 2007. This version is clearly a repackaging of that first, no-frills disc (I have a theory that Paramount created the I Love The 80's line solely to empty their warehouses of their old, stand-alone discs; their release of Coming To America also apparently recycles that film's original, movie-only edition).
As a result of these recycling shenanigans, we don't get the new 2007 transfer of Flashdance; it's the lousy old 2002 version, which is frankly a little rough. It was taken from a less-than-pristine print, with frequent dirt in the 1.85:1 anamorphic frame being the most noticeable flaw. The image is also a little washed out, though the blacks are solid and I didn't spot any compression artifacts. It's not a terrible transfer, but it's not a terribly good one either.
The film's Academy Award-winning (!) theme by Irene Cara, "Flashdance...What A Feeling," may be 1980s cheese, but it does sound pretty cool in surround sound. The film's frequent music cues spice up the 5.1 mix, though the surround channels are surprisingly underused in the rest of the film--not plinking glasses in the restaurant scene, little environmental sound on the construction site. English and French 2.0 mixes are also available, as are Spanish subtitles and English closed-captioning.
Not a one, not even a theatrical trailer. This is especially irritating (for fans of the film, anyway) because of the wealth of featurettes and trailers offered on the aforementioned collector's edition. It's the rare re-release that actually takes bonus features away from the consumer.
But it does include the same damn 4-track CD of 80s songs that's being included with all of the I Love The 80's discs, none of which are from this film.
This one is kind of a no-brainer. If you've never seen Flashdance, skip it. It blows. If you have seen Flashdance and have some kind of inexplicable affection for it (either as camp or as an 80s artifact), you should grab the collector's edition, which gives you more special features (and a CD of songs that were actually in the movie!) and is currently $2.50 cheaper than this version on Amazon. Either way, as far as this disc goes, Skip It.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.