Flashdance, which arrived in theaters in April of 1983 — 40 years ago this week — is a significant film for several reasons.
It was the first major movie to come from the producing team of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, who would go on to make Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun, and The Rock. Its creative team included 1980s perennials director Adrian Lyne (who went on to direct Fatal Attraction) and co-screenwriter Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct and Showgirls).
It was clearly influenced in at least some part by Saturday Night Fever, which arrived six years earlier, with a dancer protagonist within a gritty urban environment. And just as Saturday Night Fever turned out to have been based on a magazine article that was fabricated, Flashdance has been dogged over the years by accusations that the filmmakers took the story without proper renumeration, and also that there really isn’t such a thing as “flashdancing.” Also, one essay noted that it’s unlikely an 18-year-old woman would be able to get a job in welding, especially in a union town like Pittsburgh.
Flashdance also inspired the off-the-shoulder sweatshirt for women, and featured one of the all-time great movie theme songs, Irene Cara’s Oscar-winning “Flashdance (What a Feeling).” It’s featured repeatedly throughout the movie and elements of its show up throughout Giorgio Moroder’s score. The song and score won three Grammy Awards as well. Michael Sembello’s “Maniac” and Laura Branigan’s version of “Gloria” were both popularized by the movie as well.
The film starred Jennifer Beals as Alex Owens, a young woman in Pittsburgh who works as a welder at a steel mill during the day, and dreams of becoming a dancer. She wants to get into the (fictitious) Pittsburgh Conservatory of Dance and Repertory but works by night at a cheesy cabaret called Mawby’s.
Mawby’s is a weird place: The dancers there do something resembling burlesque routines, but they don’t strip, and the clientele appears to be more of a strip club audience than a burlesque one. Which recalls this:
Alex is supposed to be 18 years old, and Beals was 19 when the movie was filmed, although she doesn’t look that young. Eventually, she meets Nick (Michael Nouri), her boss at the steel mill, and they begin a tentative relationship.
The plot also incorporates a strip club called Zanzibar, where her doomed roommate Jeanie (Sunny Johnson) works; Eszterhas would recycle a lot of these plot elements a decade later in his script for Showgirls. Of course, in the true story the film was based on, the welder-by-day was a stripper-by-night, but I guess making a stripper the sympathetic protagonist of a movie was a bridge too far for 1983.
It leads up to the famous audition sequence:
Which Jennifer Lopez would later lift for a music video-length homage, leading to a lawsuit:
Flashdance was a major hit, making over $200 million at the box office, making it the #3 film of 1983, behind only Return of the Jedi and Tootsie.
Beals, while delivering a charismatic performance, did not do her own dancing, and in another controversy, her dance double, French dancer Marine Jahan, was not credited.
As for Beals, she didn’t really get the type of career as a movie star that she probably should have. After Flashdance, she went back to school and finished her studies at Yale, and went on to have some memorable roles in the 1990s like Four Rooms and Devil in a Blue Dress. She would go on, after the turn of the millennium, to star in the long-running The L Word.
Flashdance is streaming on Paramount+.