Jennifer Beals dances in silhouette in Flashdance

Flashdance: What A Feeling!

August 18, 2021 By Leslie Hatton Go Back

Searching for a film that defined the 1980s? Look no further than 1983’s Flashdance, the original tale of “a steel town girl on a Saturday night.” Alexandra “Alex” Owens is a welder by day and a dancer by night but dreams of being a ballerina. Set in Pittsburgh, and shot like a music video, Flashdance contrasts steel mills and strip clubs while emphasizing the importance of never giving up your dreams.

The Cast

Though several actresses auditioned for the lead role of Alex (including Kyra Sedgwick), it was then-unknown aspiring actress Jennifer Beals who snagged the role. She was working towards a B.A. in English Literature at Yale University at the time, but put her studies on hold to shoot Flashdance. Her gamble paid off: the film was the third-highest-grossing movie of the year, with a worldwide box office gross of over $200 million (the current equivalent of half a billion). Beals went on to a long and varied career but is probably best known as Bette Porter on The L Word.

Michael Nouri and Jennifer Beals embrace in Flashdance

Modern audiences will cringe at the romantic pairing of an 18-year-old character with an older man, especially when that man also owns the steel mill where the character is employed. Alex is initially hesitant to date her boss, Nick Hurley, played by then 38-year-old theatre veteran Michael Nouri, but he eventually wins her over. Creepy? A little. Stalkery? Perhaps. Yet 1983 was truly a different time. For example, sexual harassment lawsuits had only just started to gain prominence when Flashdance was made.

In terms of Nick Hurley’s casting, his role almost went to Kevin Costner. For all his charm and good looks, it’s difficult to imagine the star of The Untouchables as the kind of guy who could sweep Alex Owens off her feet. Nouri’s swarthy charisma continued to endure throughout several decades of film and television roles, such as Dr. Neil Roberts on The O.C. and Phil Grey on Damages.

The Crew

Screenwriters Tom Hedley and Joe Eszterhas allegedly based the script on the real-life story of Maureen Marder, a Toronto woman who was a construction worker/welder by day and a dancer by night. While Hedley’s name might not ring any bells, Eszterhas has penned some of the most famous (and infamous) films of the 1980s and 90s, including, Jagged Edge, Basic Instinct, and Showgirls.

Flashdance director Adrian Lyne had previously directed 1980’s Foxes starring Jodie Foster but was better known for his television commercials. He initially balked at the idea of directing the film, calling the script “a bit daft,” but was intrigued by the creative potential the dance sequences offered. In hindsight, he made the right call: Flashdance’s success triggered Lyne’s highly lucrative career directing films like 9½ Weeks, Fatal Attraction, Jacob’s Ladder, Indecent Proposal, and Unfaithful.

Lyne might not be a household name to anyone under the age of 40, but the same can’t be said for the producers of Flashdance, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, the latter of whom has been responsible for producing some of the biggest franchises in film and TV history, among them The Pirates of the Caribbean and CSI.

The Fashion

Dancewear had already been making inroads into both street fashion and haute couture since the late 1970s (just check out Pat Benatar for proof), yet Flashdance pushed it into the mainstream. And who hasn’t seen that iconic image of Jennifer Beals in the off-the-shoulder sweatshirt? While she claims the look was an accident from when her top shrunk in the wash, costume designer Michael Kaplan maintains he got the idea from watching actual dancers practice their moves. Regardless of its origin, the trend influenced real-life 1980s fashion in a major way; the “Flashdance sweatshirt” look was ubiquitous throughout the decade.

Jennifer Beals wears a off the shoulder shirt in Flashdance

There’s also the infamous deconstructed (and very sexy) men’s tuxedo Alex wears to the fancy restaurant with Nick. Her 1940s style red and black peplum jacket could make some film fans recall the style of another iconic eighties film character, Rachael Tyrell from 1982’s Blade Runner, so it should come as no surprise that Kaplan also designed costumes for that film.

The Music

After nearly 40 years, the soundtrack to Flashdance still slaps. The genesis of the score took place when Bruckheimer sent the script to Giorgio Moroder, with whom he had collaborated for the 1980 film American Gigolo. Phil Ramone, Flashdance’s music supervisor, had worked with a staggering array of singers and musicians throughout his years at A&R Recording, the studio he created in 1959.

Featuring incredible performances from Irene Cara (famous for starring in and singing the theme song to 1980’s Fame), Laura Branigan, Kim Carnes, Joan Jett, and Donna Summer, it’s a wonderful sampler of some of the best women vocalists of the 1980s. Ramone’s wife Karen Kamon (unbeknownst to her husband) recorded her vocals for the track “Manhunt” at the urging of a production assistant.

Besides the movie’s title track, there is no other song more closely identified with Flashdance than Michael Sembello’s “Maniac,” which earned the Philadelphia native several Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations. It’s such a catchy tune, it’s no wonder it was crucial to director Lyne’s development of the film’s look and feel.

Many of Flashdance’s dismissive critics compared the film unfavourably to MTV music videos. For those who came of age at the dawn of MTV, however, the film looms large, dovetailing stylistically with The J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold,” Rod Stewart’s “Young Turks,” and Duran Duran’s “Girls On Film.”

The Dancing

Although audiences at the time believed it was Beals who performed all the dancing in the film, it was soon revealed that the many of the more complex dance moves were performed by French dancer Marine Jahan, who was not even listed in the end credits. In fact, the climactic audition scene includes three other dancers in addition to Beals: Jahan, gymnast Sharon Shapiro, and Crazy Legs a.k.a. Richard Colón (of the Rock Steady Crew).

Regardless, Flashdance features some of the most amazing dance sequences of any film from the 1980s (or beyond). It was choreographed by Jeffrey Hornaday, who went on to create moves for A Chorus Line and Streets of Fire. The charming and ridiculously talented Cynthia Rhodes also auditioned for the role of Alex but ended up playing Tina Tech in the film (and later appeared as Penny in Dirty Dancing). The breakdancing sequence featuring The Rock Steady Crew was mainstream America’s introduction to the urban dance style and still impresses after all this time.


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