Sometimes a simple little movie comes along and leaves a great impact on its audience. Although there are many fine examples of the genre “musical”, Flashdance is one of the most successful films of the early eighties, despite poor reviews by professional film critics, proving indeed that this genre can succeed as a big box office hit. Flashdance has a lot to offer its audience - it fits the conventions of the musical but also crosses genres into romantic women’s drama.
Flashdance (1983) was directed by Adrian Lyne, who purportedly twice turned down the offer to direct. Between Lyne and Director of Photography Donald Peterman, the film is beautifully shot, with detailed attention to lighting, dance and action sequences, and overall Production Design. Distributed by Paramount Pictures, Flashdance stars a wonderful, dreamlike Jennifer Beals as eighteen-year-old innocent dance hopeful Alex, and ruggedly good looking Michael Nouri plays the older businessman and lover, Nick. The film features another hopeful dreamer - Richie, the goofy cook who wants to be a comedian, played by Kyle T. Heffner.
The overall theme of Flashdance is undoubtedly the need to follow an all-consuming passion in order to become better than you are, to build a better life. True to its genre as a musical, the film presents differences and then reconciles them. From the outset, Alex is featured riding a bicycle to her job as a welder with a Steelworks company. Her eventual love interest, Nick, turns out to be the boss. He appears throughout the film in a Porsche, which is the exact polar opposite of Alex's choice of transportation. Alex also works evenings as an exotic dancer in a club called Mawby’s. She is hopeful, optimistic, and consumed by her passion for dance. Nick is divorced, and ‘from the old neighbourhood,' but has made good and become successful in his own right. He ‘figured out what he wanted to do, took a deep breath, and jumped.’ Richie, the boyfriend of Alex’s friend Jeanie, is a cook at Mawby's. He is a minimum wage earner who slings off bad jokes with every breath and who, like Alex, dreams of his passion leading him to something better.
Flashdance encompasses a lot of themes and beautiful visual design, with the characters remaining true to their original characterizations. At one point, Alex rides on her bike to Nick’s home and angrily fires a rock through his window. She had just come from the ballet, where she had inadvertently spotted him escorting a pretty blonde into his Porsche. After her fit of angry passion, Alex pedals away from Nick’s opulent neighbourhood into the darkness, only to arrive home to an empty warehouse apartment with a leaky radiator – she discovers a puddle of water on the floor. Moments later, her friend Richie appears to say good-bye as he heads off to California to chase down a life as a stand-up comic.
The film carries some of the essential thematic elements of binary opposites. It opens with the polar opposite lives Alex and Nick are living. Alex, on her bike, and then returning to her broken down warehouse digs, is small and lonely at the bottom left of the frame when she throws the rock through one of Nick’s windows. Nick’s home reflects his lifestyle of success - wealth and indulgence – his home is large, expensive, grand. His lot reflects the size of the home and the station to which he has risen. With respect to visual design, it’s fascinating through the entire film to watch the lighting as it helps develop the characters and their plights. In this particular film minute, the screen starts out rather dark, as Alex is outside on her bike. Only a small orange light or two reveal Nick’s grand home at first, but after the rock is thrown and he runs around flipping on indoor lights, the house becomes illuminated. To Alex’s young eye, it reveals an awakening of sorts. Suddenly the house becomes this behemoth that shelters the man with whom she has fallen in love, all lit up and towering above her. No wonder she hurriedly cycles away in the dark as Nick comes running out of the house. A favorite image is that of the door he leaves open behind him – there are many arches in this film, and architectural details that further the story (broken down, peeling wallpaper and square doorways versus grandly illuminated archways). One is the archway of his doorway which, when left open, is grandly lit and beckoning.
Flashdance has many lovely scenes featuring Alex riding her bicycle down rain soaked streets, in many cases lit by different coloured hues of nearby neon and fluorescent lights. At one point we pick her up in an alley outside her warehouse apartment, the opposite of Nick’s palatial green spaced home. As she enters in her dress clothes from the ballet (yes, she rode her bicycle while dressed up), and discovers the pool of water on the floor next to the old radiator, she pulls the audience into her pain. Already discouraged by finding Nick with the blonde woman outside the ballet, her shoulders slump and we sense that this pool of water is unshed tears. Lighting is sparse, directional and isolated when Richie comes in and catches her on the floor wiping up the water. Almost every scene in this film features at least one punch of red, whether it be a swinging red light bulb backstage at Mawby’s, or a scarf worn by Alex during an outdoor breakdance scene. In the radiator scene, there is an isolated red light at the back right of the frame. Could that be representative of the dark side of going after your dreams? Or does it mean that there is hope, a bright spot in seemingly dark situations? At any rate, when Richie comes in he flicks on another hanging lamp above Alex and the defective rad. This is a fringed period lamp, which fits in with the overall décor of Alex's apartment. Although Flashdance is a 1980’s musical, the apartment features period pieces likely from the twenties, with doilies and florals and a beautiful metal framed bed decorated with curlicues and curves. The hanging lamp shines a pool of light, not unlike a spotlight, above the two young dreamers. The end of the scene features a beautiful high angle shot of the two hugging goodbye. They appear lonely and alone with their dreams, small and diminished in the large warehouse apartment. As Richie drives away, out of the darkness are seen two red tail lights, beacons perhaps in the dark alley where the warehouse is located, and furthering the visual design of the film.
There is so much more that can be said about this film that aligns it with the genre ‘musical’, as in this analysis as well as the rest of the film there are so many visual cues to the theme of opposites. Some are architectural or set design features, and some result from simple character placement, such as Alex and Nick on opposite sides of an elevator, and Nick running from his house and standing on his beautifully landscaped lawn above the fleeing Alex. Even Alex’s second hand vintage furniture decorated with doilies and lace places her in a whimsical, dreamy place, opposite to Nick’s late model Porsche and modern home. In Flashdance the stakes were against Alex right from the start – she worked in a male oriented job with men, was called the guy nickname Alex most of the time instead of ‘Alexandra,' wore baggy male clothes and spent a lot of time dreaming and wanting more. But until Nick came along and taught her to believe in herself and her dreams, and to take action on her own behalf, she remained a dreamer. Throughout the film the dance scenes are fun to watch. They reveal character, and are ‘jump up and cheer’ inspiring at times.
Flashdance may not be a brilliant film in terms of work by a director like Coppola or Hitchcock, but it rises above a lot of Hollywood fluff out there today by sheer virtue of its striking visual design, and simple, sweet story about following one’s dreams. The film sums up my life of taking chances. As Alex’s encouraging lover, Nick said more than once during the film – ‘If you don’t follow your dreams, you die.’ No wonder audiences loved this sweet little dance musical – it feels awesome to share in the experience of a dreamer making good. Especially when it is presented in a sophisticated array of visual sequences and wistful dialogue that adds to the dreaminess of Alex’s character. It succeeds in pulling the audience into the film so that they, too, cheer for Alex. Maybe the 80's audiences left the theatre feeling better about their own lives after helping Alex live hers for a few hours.
In the end, the audience does not know whether or not Alex has been successful in obtaining her dream. What is important is that she tried.