Saturday, August 31, 2013

FLASHDANCE: Blu-ray (Paramount 1983) Warner Home Video

In 1697 famed French author Charles Perrault wrote an endearing and enduring fable about a scullery girl who marries a prince. In the roughly 300+ years since, that tale has been told countless times and in a myriad of permutations. Today, Perrault’s Cinderella is alive and well. Disney built an entire empire on its legacy. But the sentiment behind the dream that is a wish the heart makes can equally apply to both sexes and, in fact, never entirely leaves us in the twilight of our youth. Perhaps this, above all else, remains the strength in Perrault’s escapist fantasy; the allure that at any moment we might achieve the impossible with just a little faith, guidance and perpetuation of belief in ourselves. It’s a powerful notion, that miracles can and do occur; unearthed from the most graceless profession, location and time; in the case of Adrian Lyne’s Flashdance; exotic dancing, Pittsburgh and 1983; the latter a period in which the American movie culture – thought to be on its death bed a scant three years earlier – had quite inexplicably and joyously begun to experience its own extraordinary resurrection.
For one reason or another, audiences who had all but shunned movie culture throughout the 1970s began to fall in love with the movies all over again throughout the 1980s, the renaissance in Hollywood partly owed to Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Reagan had, of course, been an actor during Hollywood’s golden era and had watched as the merciless cost-cutting and government interventions of the mid-1950s had systematically conspired to reduce a once indestructible and uniquely American industry to its bedrock. By 1971, the movie business was hardly something desired to get into, but, in fact, was readily looking upon as something get out of. While the pundits began to pen their dirges and eulogies to Hollywood, suggesting an era not too far off when society would look back on going to the movies with quaint fondness, Reagan passed into legislation a reversal of the 1950 Consent Decrees; effectively allowing studios to once more begin acquiring other holdings. Now unimpeded, the surviving majors dug in their heels as perhaps never before, building rosters and conglomerates. Regrettably, for some this salvation came too late – particularly MGM and United Artists.
But an even more phenomenal revivification was afoot in 1983; the return of the audience into theaters and the worldwide debut of the home video market which took off as few in the industry might have guessed it would. Perhaps in their decade-long abstinence the audience had suddenly realized what had almost been lost to them for all time, returning to the fold in ever-increasing numbers and raising the demand for more and more studio-grown product. Of all the studios that had survived the mid-70s deluge, perhaps none was more primed for a comeback than Paramount – the studio that had once played host to the likes of Cecil B. De Mille, Billy Wilder and Ernest Lubtisch among others, but had effectively slid into ninth place amongst its competitors just prior to Robert Evan’s being instated as its production chief in 1970. Evans took risks – ones that paid off handsomely and by 1980 Paramount was on very solid ground. If a dream is indeed a wish the heart makes, then Evan’s wishes had been amply granted and the studio’s upswing continued under newly instated production chief Don Simpson.
Flashdance is the Cinderella-esque tale of a defiant welder/part-time exotic dancer who has steadfast dreams of making it big in the seemingly irreconcilable world of professional ballet. The improbability of this scenario mattered not to audiences back in 1983. In fact, it helped to stir the precepts of the Cinderella fable anew for a generation jaded by senate probes, wage freezes, oil embargoes and a foundering middle class plagued by chronic unemployment. Setting Flashdance at the epicenter of this bewildered/disillusioned and very depressed pop culture gave the story not only real intensity but also an immediate believability. Alex Owens (Jennifer Beals) is not Central Casting beautiful; but earthy, blue collar, exceptionally gifted and essentially real – all necessary qualities for the transformation to take hold within our collective hearts. This transformative quality is precisely what brought audiences into theaters in 1983; the very promise that with a little willful passion and an awful lot of penetrating effort one could rise above circumstances to attain greatness on individual terms and without sacrificing personal integrity to make the achievement stick.  
Flashdance was first brought to the attention of producer Linda Obst by screenwriter Tom Hedley. Hedley had written a story based on the experiences of woman who danced in bars in Vancouver: the distinction made was that these women did not dance to strip, but toiled in the exotic dancing profession with aspirations of becoming legitimate dancers elsewhere. Obst, who had been unhappily toiling at Casablanca Films took a leap of faith, sharing the project with producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson. Obst saw Flashdance as a woman’s empowerment piece. Bruckheimer pursued Adrian Lyne to direct – an assignment Lyne was less than enthusiastic about. Indeed, Bruckheimer concurred that the script needed work and so Rolling Stone writer, Joe Esterhas was brought in to juice up the scenario. Six months later Lyne was contacted again and was much impressed by the reshaping, but even more so with Don Simpson’s overwhelming passion for the projection. In one, nine hour phone session the terms were agreed upon and Flashdance began its two week location shoot in Pittsburgh. Lyne exploited the town’s postmodern apocalyptic landscape of abandoned factories to stunning effect; his keen artistic sense relishing the urban decay; creating a sort of contemporary ‘love among the ruins’ between Alex Owen and Nick Hurley (Michael Nouri).
Nouri’s participation on the project was kismet. He had contemplated The Osterman Weekend for director Sam Peckinpah, a deal practically signed when Flashdance was brought to his attention. In viewing Flashdance today one is immediately struck by Nouri’s stillness; his ability to convey so much while appearing to do so little; his rectitude and introspection the perfect counterbalance to Jennifer Beals’ fiery disposition. Beals was just seventeen at the time; an accidental stay over in New York after her luggage had been lost on a return trip from Europe placing her at the right place at the right time to audition for the part. Adrian Lyne was immediately struck by Beals’ ability to simultaneously convey vulnerability and yet great determination. From the moment he set eyes on her, Lyne was most enthusiastic to have Beals in the movie. It took Bruckheimer a little longer to warm up to the idea. Only after several other actresses – including Cynthia Rhodes - had been tested, and, in fact, Michael Eisner had intervened, did Beals get the part.
From the onset it was apparent that Beals lacked the precision of a trained dancer. Thus, much of her routine’s in the movie were an ingenious amalgam of Beals shot in close-up, and at least two other dancers and a gymnast – one male – cleverly shot in silhouette or half-shadow and skillfully edited in such a way as to be virtually imperceptible to the naked eye. In the meantime, Lyne went about crafting the visual look of the movie from a patchwork of principle photographed lensed in Pittsburgh and L.A. and sets expressly built for the production at Paramount, including Mawby’s Bar – the hub for so many of the story’s pivotal moments and virtually all except for two of its memorable dance routines.
Flashdance begins with a few bars of ‘What A Feeling’ – the iconic Giorgio Moroder pop tune sung with genuine passion by Irene Cara – laid under a montage as welder Alex Owens (Jennifer Beals) bicycles through the gritty downtown street of Pittsburgh in the steely blue-gray of dawn on her way to work. To her coworkers at the construction site Alex is just one of the guys. Indeed, she even goes unnoticed by her boss, Nick Hurley (Michael Nouri) until he turns up one evening at Mawby’s Bar – a blue collar watering hole where the mostly male clientele come to watch supple young women perform exotic dances. Alex is just one of the headliners at this club, performing a stunning routine with cascading water backlit to accentuate the splash effects and fairly setting Nick’s heart on fire in the process.
The next day Nick makes a play for Alex during her lunch break at the construction site. She’s polite but adamant about not entertaining his romantic ideas; repeatedly turning him down for lunch and dinner engagements and making it quite clear that she has no intentions of getting involved with the boss. Nick’s persistent, however, and congenial to a fault. Alex, on the other hand, is a spitfire. Her best friend is Jeanie Szabo (Sunny Johnson), an insecure waitress at the club who becomes disillusioned and self-destructive after her boyfriend, wannabe comedian, Richie (Kyle T. Heffner) makes an impromptu decision to go to Hollywood without her in his vein attempt to make it big.
Alex’s mentor is Hannah Long (Lilia Skala), an ex-Ziegfeld girl turned seamstress who sews all of Alex’s costumes, but senses the girl’s deeper passion to belong to another world. Hannah takes Alex to the ballet and encourages her to audition for the local repertory company. In the meantime, local hustler, Johnny C. (Lee Ving) has his eyes on Alex and Jeanie, hoping to lure them away from Jake Mawby’s (Ron Karabatsos) bar into his seedy underworld of sex trade prostitution. Alex is not interested and neither is Jeanie at first. But Johnny chips away at Jeanie’s self-respect after Richie leaves town and particularly after her own dreams of becoming a professional skater are dashed in a disastrous performance on the ice.
In the meantime, Alex has decided to allow Nick to pursue her. Taking Nick back to her place – a makeshift apartment converted from an industrial loft – Alex seduces Nick on her own terms and the two become lovers. Everything seems to be going just fine until Alex accidentally observes Nick leaving the ballet with a blonde. Riding her bicycle back to Nick’s house, Alex hurls a rock through his picture window before peddling off in a rage. The next day at work she confronts Nick who confesses to attending the ballet with his ex-wife, Katie (Belinda Bauer) because both are members who sit on the artist’s committee. Adrian Lyne’s direction is rather ambivalent about whether or not Nick took Katie home with him. But Nick’s explanation of events seems to satisfy Alex who rather sheepishly forgives him.  
To prove his loyalty Nick decides to pull a few strings on the art’s council, thus ensuring that Alex will be invited by the committee to audition for the ballet despite her lack of formal training. Alex knows nothing of Nick’s philanthropy and is elated when the letter of admittance arrives, immediately sharing her good news with Hannah who could not be more pleased. To celebrate, Nick takes Alex to a fashionable restaurant where the two are confronted by Katie. The moment is fraught with friction, diffused only after Alex stands her ground and reveals to the ex that she is currently having an affair with Nick. It is a near perfect triumph until Nick lets it slip on the car ride home that he knew about Alex’s invitation before she did, thereby exposing his hand in securing her the audition.
Embittered by the realization that she has not accomplished anything on her own, Alex storms off in a rage, striking Nick and rushing to Hannah’s for guidance only to discover from her landlady (Ann Muffly) that Hannah has died. Rescuing Jeanie from Johnny C.’s seedy nightclub - a lifestyle that could only lead to self-degradation and despair - Alex decides to grasp at the brass ring of success by auditioning for the committee. Nervous, Alex flubs her first attempt, but valiantly regroups, girding her resolve to perform a stunning routine; an eclectic mix of traditional ballet, exotic expressionism and even break-dancing (then on the cusp of becoming mainstream). The audacity and sheer energy imbued in her performance dazzles the committee. Emerging from the audition invigorated, and with the understanding that today begins her life anew, Alex finds Nick waiting for her with roses. Alex removes a single long stem from his bouquet and giving it back to Nick, her gesture of gratitude for his having changed the circumstances of her own life for the better.
Flashdance is a ‘feel good’ times ten; having lost none of its charm in the intervening decades. At times, Adrian Lyne’s direction becomes just a tad episodic with several sequences degenerating into lengthy montages linked solely by the movie’s chart-topping soundtrack that includes Cycle V’s ‘Seduce Me Tonight,’ Michael Sembello’s ‘Maniac’, and Joe Esposito’s memorable love ballad, ‘Lady, Lady, Lady’ among other instantly recognizable hits from the 1980s.
There’s a genuine, if extremely volatile, sexual chemistry brewing between Jennifer Beals and Michael Nouri. It’s hard to believe Beals was only seventeen when she made this movie; her demeanor suggesting a woman of the world well beyond her actual age. As a couple, Beals and Nouri emit some fairly potent sparks; the trick of it being that almost none occur in the usual clich├ęd ‘sweating up the sheets’ garden variety that Hollywood so readily relishes in exposing. With the exception of a few cutaways of the pair lying next to each other in bed, almost all of Alex and Nick’s tempestuous liaisons are played vertically – rather than horizontally – leaving most of what went on behind closed doors enough of a mystery for the audience to fill in the blanks.
Michael Kaplan’s stripped down wardrobe of cutoff sweatshirts, leotards, leggings and leg warmers created something of a minor fashion trend upon the movie’s release. It’s the clothing, and perhaps the hairstyles, that dates Flashdance as a product of the 1980s. But otherwise it is refreshing to see a thirty-three year old motion picture continue to hold up so well; particularly from today’s jaded vantage and scrutiny. I suspect that Flashdance continues to work its magic because at its heart its precepts are very much aligned with Charles Perrault’s Cinderella – timeless source material likely to remain undiminished by the passing parade of youth and lifestyle, unencumbered by the evolution of style itself and ever-changing trends, and perennially appealing in its perpetuation of the hope, the promise and the dreams that eternally make up our more intuitive desire; fueling inspiration to the human condition. What a feeling, indeed!
Warner Home Video’s release of this vintage Paramount title is extremely impressive. Paramount gets the kudos for this remastering effort; a flawless video presentation with HD extras to boot. Where to begin? The movie looks spectacular. Colors pop, with vibrant, deeply saturated reds, earthy brown and very natural flesh tones. Contrast is superb with velvety rich blacks and very crisp whites. Grain is appealing. Fine details abound. We get to see textures in brick and foliage and hair and skin that add another layer to the grittiness of the story: truly, a superior remastering effort. The audio is equally impressive with Irene Cara’s iconic ‘What a Feeling’ billowing forth in stimulating sonic waves. Dialogue sounds quite natural and the pop soundtrack thunders with an intensity unheard – except, arguably, during the movie’s theatrical release. Better still, Paramount’s extras produced in 2007 have all been imported to this Blu-ray in HD: five featurettes produced by Laurent Bouzereau, whose distinguished career has given us some very fine supplemental material over the years. His featurettes for Flashdance provide fairly comprehensive coverage of the movie’s making with input from Bruckheimer, Lyne, Nouri and other cast and crew. Top marks! Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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