Flashdance

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: Welder by day, dancer by night, young Alex dreams of getting a place in her local repertory dance company. However, despite encouragement from all quarters, she doesn’t have the bottle to make her dreams become reality – until her boss, for better or worse, sweeps her off her feet and takes matters into his own hands.

Alex (Jennifer Beals) is a thoroughly modern young woman. During the day, she pays the bills by working as a welder in a Pittsburgh steel mill; by night, she gets on her bike and gets her kicks by dancing exotically at Mawby’s Bar, where her (much older) boss Nick (Michael Nouri) takes a shine to her. Alex, however, has better things on her mind, most of the time: she’s desperate to join the local Conservatory, but she’s put off by the sniffy ballerinas and intimidating forms that demand the formal training she lacks, having only been trained by doting old dear Hanna (Lilia Skala).

Alex’s friends are not so shy: Jeanie (Sunny Johnson) has dreams of becoming a professional ice skater, if her nerves don’t get the better of her; while humble chef Richie (Kyle T. Heffner) is determined to make it in stand-up. After helping Alex ward off the attentions of sleazy strip joint owner Johnny C. (Lee Ving), Nick finally charms the pants off the wannabe dancer. But Alex still harbours doubts about her own ability and about Nick’s (so he says) ex-wife; and when she discovers that he has pulled strings to get her an audition in front of the solemn Conservatory panel, her initial reaction is one of fury. Then again, if she really wants to be a dancer…

I don’t know whether I’m in a demanding mood, watching more than the usual amount of drab movies, or this is a particularly moribund example, but Flashdance annoys the hell out of me. The plot establishes a risible set-up worthy of Elvis – ‘What’s a dancer doing working as a welder?’ asks Nick, reasonably – yet isn’t remotely interested in exploring her day job: how she got it, whether the rigours of welding help or hinder her dancing, or why her day-job colleagues don’t make her life a misery by ripping her to shreds over her night job (they’re the most PC blue collar workers you’ll ever meet).

Instead, it serves up a story insulting in its simplicity: Jeanie tries and fails, Richie tries and fails, so come on, Alex, you can try too, with a little push from a rich old sugar daddy – and mind nothing happens to your doddery old friend, won’t you? Then again, there’s not much room for plot in between the endless dance/pop videos which serve a single purpose, namely to pose the question ‘Aren’t women’s bottoms nice?’ Well, yes they are, as it happens, and Beals possesses a very fine one; but it’s a rather strange idea that you can build an entire film around lithe ladies performing interpretative dance with not much on.

At its worst, the dread hand of Joe Eszterhas looms large over Flashdance. The terrible stand-up comedian, the exotic club (plus the strip club down the road) and some of the moribund dialogue can’t help but bring Showgirls to mind; given Alex’s volatility, she’s at least a precursor for Nomi Malone. There’s an unfortunate euphemistic moment when Alex asks Nick ‘Don’t you want some pizza?’ as she’s removing her knickers – I had put it down to poor editing, but Eszterhas is easily capable of such lewd suggestiveness.

Yet the film overall is nowhere near as bad as Showgirls, fortunately. Neither Beals’ acting nor dancing (however much dancing she in fact did, others can debate) are top-notch, but there are reserves of warmth in her deep, brown eyes that invite us to feel her passion, her anguish, her joy when she gets to express herself fully. And there is something uplifting about the famous, much-parodied audition wherein Alex (as the song goes) dances for her life, even if there’s still lots wrong with it: the judges comic reactions are unnecessary, the stunt double looks very manly sometimes, and the film ends promptly afterwards, leaving a dodgy message that if you’re rich and powerful, the ends justify the means.

No, fair play, as a moment of pure catharsis it works as an impressive climax to the film. What a shame the rest of it is so duff, notwithstanding dignified performances from Skala, and Philip Bruns as Jeanie’s secretly proud dad. Nouri fails to do much with his crummy role and as for Heffner’s Richie – boy, is he and thus Eszterhas (and, lest we forget, co-writer Tom Hedley) unfunny.

Prior to watching it, I’d pegged Flashdance as a halfway point between Fame and Dirty Dancing, with perhaps a bit of A Chorus Line thrown in. Lyne’s film delivers on the dancing alright, but otherwise it scarcely deserves being mentioned alongside the other films (though A Chorus Line in particular has its own problems). I liked Beals very much, and I liked Alex’s brave, knockout performance wrapping up the film; but everything else is superficial, leering and frankly not very flash at all.

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