‘Flashdance’ Became The Blueprint For Many Of The Most Successful Blockbuster Movies Ever Made

Have you ever watched a movie and had no idea if you’ve ever seen it before or not? Like, maybe some of it feels familiar, but you can’t put a finger on if you’ve actually sat down and watched the whole thing before? For me, that’s Flashdance. A movie I think I saw as a kid, but, then again, the songs are so popular, maybe I’m just thinking of the music videos.

Right after everything in our current world started getting delayed or canceled, I told several movie studios I’d be interested in any reissues or anniversary edition Blu-rays of catalog titles. Because, well, there are so few new movies, a new perspective on something older didn’t seem like such a bad idea. So, yes, smashcut to this week and a new Flashdance Blu-ray shows up at my door.

Flashdance is remarkable for a few reasons. Most notably, it launched the career of Jennifer Beals, who stars as Alex. It spawned two massively popular songs, “What a Feeling” by Irene Cara and “Maniac” by Michael Sembello. And it was the first producing collaboration between Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson, who would go on to produce some of the biggest blockbusters of the decade and beyond.

What’s weird is, the thing about everything I just wrote in that previous paragraph almost dwarfs anything there is to say about the actual film. Watching it now, I’m fairly sure I had seen it before on HBO or whatever, but the reason I couldn’t put a finger on the plot is because there’s barely a plot to speak of. Yet, while watching, this movie is pure adrenaline. It feels obvious today why critics dismissed Flashdance and yet audiences ate it up. My brain knew what I was watching wasn’t particularly great, but yet at the same time, I felt great. It’s impossible to watch it and not feel happy. It’s cinematic dopamine. And it’s the template Bruckheimer and Simpson would use to great effect in many more movies to come. But with Flashdance, it’s like getting a look at the raw source material.

Flashdance both begins and ends with Irene Cara’s “What a Feeling.” This is smart because it’s an impossibly catchy song. As the song fades we see a welder, with the name “Alex” written on the welder’s mask, hard at work in a Pittsburgh factory. Beals then removes her mask and shakes her hair out, which was no doubt to get some sort of 1983 audience to do a doubletake and say, “What?! A lady?!.”

Alex, short for Alexandra, works as a welder during the day, then dances at a cabaret at night, doing elaborate performances that are better than many music videos of the era. But Alex’s dream is to be accepted at the Pittsburgh Conservatory of Dance, but doesn’t think she has the experience to get even an audition. Eventually she starts dating the owner of the steel mill who has a lot of contacts with local influencers and gets Alex an audition. Now, mind you, everything I just explained is about 90 minutes of plot. Almost nothing else happens. (Except for a subplot about a cook who wants to be a comedian. Also, Robert Wuhl shows up as a patron of the cabaret in a roll so small that I wasn’t sure if he was in the movie or just happened to be hanging out there he night this was filmed.) It’s pretty much just montage after montage of Alex dancing. And because Flashdance was concocted in a laboratory to be visually and audibly pleasing to humans, I was somehow riveted the whole time. Flashdance is witchcraft.

But it’s weird, because Flashdance doesn’t have the cultural footprint today that other Bruckheimer and Simpson productions do, like, say, Top Gun or Beverly Hills Cop. No one is asking for a Flashdance sequel. (The argument could be made, and I guess I’m making it now, that today Flashdance is best known for its soundtrack as opposed to the film itself. So it still has a footprint, I just doubt that many people under 30 have actually seen Flashdance.)

But what matters most about Flashdance, it’s legacy, is the blueprint it provided for basically printing money. Director Adrian Lyne crafted a movie that’s less a narrative and more an assemblage of scenes and moments. (Something Bruckheimer and Simpson would have even greater success doing when they teamed with Tony Scott.) With Flashdance, it’s almost like we can scientifically pull apart the secret ingredient for success: There’s the opening title, scrolling from left to right in huge letters as the opening synth beats of “What a Feeling” start. There’s the montage of Alex dancing alone to “Maniac.” There are some passing attempts at plot, but not anywhere near enough to get in the way of the cool scenes. Then there’s the finale, as “What a Feeling” amps back up in a perfectly edited audition (it actually picked up an editing Oscar nomination) as Alex flies around the room and win the hearts of the school board and the audience. Pure, unfiltered triumph.

Flashdance would become a sensation that was relegated to just its time. It would gross $200 million worldwide and become the third-highest-grossing film of 1983. Flashdance was so popular it inspired a Peanuts special titled Flashbeagle.* But I can only assume its lack of any real plot eventually caught up with Flashdance. If I watched it again right now, I’m not going to feel the same adrenaline rush. I’m just going to notice that most of this movie is filler. But the seeds are there. And that’s what’s fascinating about Flashdance: that the basic Flashdance formula was refined and harnessed and made billions of dollars for the movie industry.

*So, around Halloween 2018 I bought a 4K transfer of all the holiday Peanuts specials. As a bonus, this included Flashbeagle, which I had forgotten existed and, after watching, couldn’t imagine watching a Peanuts special that made more sense for its time and less anytime after. Anyway, no, Flashbeagle doesn’t get played on television very often these days.)

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