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What a feeling! - 35 years of Flashdance

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Disregarding the questionable plot and the nauseating age gap between the two main leads, Flashdance paved the way for the MTV era of choreography-based musical films such as Footloose (1984) and Dirty Dancing (1987).

Instead of relying on songs sung by the characters to progress the narrative, choreographed dance routines were the focal point, and often played a role in the main character’s aspirations.

Ren McCormack (Kevin Bacon) in Footloose wanted to lift the ban on dancing and rock music, and Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman truly finds herself during a family vacation through learning to dance, after becoming infatuated with the camp’s dance instructor, Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze).

Finding and liberating oneself through dance fully came to fruition in Flashdance, in which eighteen-year-old steel mill worker Alexandra ‘Alex’ Owens (Jennifer Beal) strives to be a professional dancer – even though she has no formal dance training – and so fulfils her ambition by exotic dancing at the local bar.

To appreciate Flashdance, however, you need to avoid the narrative entirely and instead focus on the way in which the film is presented. The emphasis on music, performance, and choreography successfully hides the problems presented in the story. People tend to call back to the famous audition sequence towards the end of the film or the ‘Maniac’ routine, rather than the narrative of the film.

It’s these aspects that created the Flashdance legacy, and to facilitate these scenes, cinematographer Donald Peterman and editors Walt Mulconery and Bud Smith adapted to a style of fast-paced, highly edited filmmaking that became the norm for music videos in the 1980s.

Flashdance was the first film to fully embrace the promotional music video, more or less lifting the ‘Maniac’ and ‘What a Feeling’ sequences from the movie, supplying them to MTV, which the channel would then air in regular rotation. It was through MTV that Flashdance became an iconic hit, demonstrating how music video tie-ins could successfully promote a film and attract additional floods of audiences that may not have known of the film otherwise.

Flashdance earned over $4 million on its opening weekend, which then skyrocketed to over $90 million in its 27th week in 1983. You only have to watch the sequence for ‘Maniac’ to instantly feel the need to watch the rest of Flashdance; if the choreography is that good in one clip, then it must be in the rest of the film – which it was.

That’s not to say that Flashdance doesn’t have a positive message. If one were to summarize the story, it’s about a group of young adults – Alex especially – that work mundane jobs and dream to make something greater of themselves, which ultimately works out for Alex in the end – with the questionable help of her much, much older lover/boss Nick Hurley (Michael Nouri).

Luckily, Beal portrays the character of Alex with such charisma and relatability that overall, you’re drawn to liking her and therefore rooting for her to eventually grasp her dream, no matter how she gets there. The let down comes from how she is portrayed as a strong woman in a man’s world, who ultimately reaches her dream by a man helping her to do so. That still just doesn’t sit right.

Even though Flashdance has its obvious downfalls, it makes up for it in the influence that it would eventually bring to the films that succeed it. If it wasn’t for Flashdance, there would be none of the famous dance-orientated films that followed (Footloose and Dirty Dancing), the heavy airplay of sequences from Prince’s Purple Rain (1984) on MTV or even the production, promotion and release of Top Gun (1986) and Beverly Hills Cop (1984), two films that were produced by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer after the initial success of Flashdance.  

It’s strange to think how in context, Flashdance was a small film in comparison to those surrounding it in 1983. It starred little-to-unknown actors and actresses and was directed by a filmmaker that had only three movies under his belt before its release (but who would go onto direct 9½ Weeks, Fatal Attraction, Jacob’s Ladder and Lolita).

What an energy Flashdance provided to the early 80s, and still provides with an everlasting legacy that can still be felt today.

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