As someone from Pittsburgh, it’s kind of amazing that I’ve never watched this movie, perhaps the most famous movie shot here not in the horror or action genre.
Adrian Lyne was not the first choice to be the director, as both David Cronenberg and Brian De Palma turned it down. But Lyne came from commercials — his ads for Brutus Jeans are pretty much proof of concept for this movie — and he knew the right look for the film.
Paramount was so unsure of the movie’s potential that they sold 25% of the rights before it came out. Joke was on them — it made over $200 million worldwide and was the third highest-grossing film of 1983.
For the lead, there were three front-runners: Jennifer Beals, Demi Moore and Leslie Wing. As this was the first collaboration of producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, they were quite hands-on. Writer Joe Eszterhas* — oh man, I need to do a week of his films — claims that Eisner took a survey from “two hundred of the most macho men on the Paramount lot, Teamsters and gaffers and grips.” He asked one very important question: “I want to know which of these three young women you’d most want to fuck.”
Lyne used dark cinematography and montage music video editing to hide one important fact: that isn’t Beals dancing. Her body double is Marine Jahan and also male dancer Richard “Crazy Legs” Colón, a member of the Rock Steady Crew who is also in Style Wars, Wild Style and Beat Street. Gymnast Sharon Shapiro also doubled during the audition scene.
Alexandra “Alex” Owens (Beals) works as a welder in a steel mill by day — kids, learn a trade because welders are seriously always in demand and Alex is pretty smart to know this — and a dancer at Mawby’s by night. She dreams of being a professional ballet dancer, but dreams are in currency at that establishment, with Jeanie (Sunny Johnson, who sadly died not long after making this from a brain hemorrhage) wants to be a figure skater and her short-order cook boyfriend Richie (Kyle T. Heffner) wants to become a comedian.
Alex is in demand. Her boss Nick (Michael Nouri) is smitten with her while Johnny C. (Lee Ving!) wants her to dance at his strip club Zanzibar. She keeps thinking about applying to the Pittsburgh Conservatory of Dance and Repertory but is too afraid of the tryout. And then, one night, she and Richie are attacked by Johnny C. and one of his henchmen, Cecil (Malcolm Danare). Nick saves the day and they finally fall in love.
Things get tough, though. Richie makes it to Los Angeles, but Jeanie falls twice in her big skating competition and decides that Zanzibar is where her future is. Alex drags her out at the two cry in the rain. And Nick’s ex-wife (Belinda Bauer) complicates the love story for some time, but things work out and Alex nails her audition, using the rough edge of dance she did on stage mixed with the classical form.
Pittsburgh is just as much a character as anyone else in this movie. Alex rides the Duquesne Incline like a good Yinzer, which also doesn’t make sense because her apartment is miles away and near the home of her mentor at 2100 Sidney Street. Kind of like how she rides her bike all through Fineview and somehow ends up on the Smithfield Street Bridge, as close to a “Take Bigelow” moment as Flashdance gets. The Pittsburgh Conservatory of Dance and Repertory is obviously the Carnegie Museum, which is one of my favorite places (the nearby Carnegie Library is gigantic, has a hidden window to check out the dinosaurs in the history museum, is heated with old radiators and has an amazing DVD collection with so many out of print films).
Sadly, Alex’s loft is actually Los Angeles. And Mawby’s was a vacant warehouse on the corner of Boyd Street and Wall Street, even if it looks a lot like Jack’s on East Carson Street. The idea of Mawby’s is wild to me. It’s obviously a working class shot and a beer bar, yet it has dancers on stage who bring their own props and dance some incredibly intricate dancers of sultry near performance art whereas you’d expect gyrations and nudity. There was never a place like this in 1983 Pittsburgh that I know of — to be fair, I was 11 and would have been kicked out of the Edison Lounge, so maybe it was the Moon Township-based Fantasy’s Showbar while Zanzibar is closer to the Edison, Casino Royale or the frankly intimidating Chez Kimberly — but hey just add it to the list of strip club establishments in movies where no one gets naked. That said, Tina Tech (Cynthia Rhodes, who is also in Staying Alive, Runaway and plays Penny in Dirty Dancing) dancing to the song “Manhunt” is pretty incredible.
Zanzibar** is really Star Strip Gentlemen’s Club on 365 North La Cienega Boulevard in West Hollywood — thanks Movie-Locations.com — which is gone.
You can also see a lot of Pittsburgh, like the Southside clock — once owned by Duquesne Brewing — as well as a lot that’s gone, like the mills, the once glitzy world of Station Square which is mostly office space now (I spent years of my life working there and the nightclub Chauncy’s would blast bass into our advertising office while we worked all night, I was a maniac, maniac pasting up ads) and Vic Cianca, a Pittsburgh icon who was a dancing traffic cop who conducted the gridlock of dahntahn like it was a symphony. When he retired, The Pittsburgh Press — also gone — said “A downtown traffic jam without Vic Cianca is a traffic jam with no redeeming qualities.”
Debra Gordon, who was Rita in Effects is a ballet dancer in this. And always, a movie cannot be made in Pittsburgh without Chef Don Brockett being in the cast. Never change, City of Bridges.
The music of Flashdance is the last character we need to discuss.
Bruckheimer had collaborated with Giorgio Moroder on American Gigolo and sent him the script as soon as he had received it to give him a sense of the music they needed. The composer was busy while the movie was being shot and only had time to do a rough version of the theme song. Moroder had not committed to the project by the end of filming, but when he watched the movie, he decided to work on the score.
Moroder wrote the “Love Theme from Flashdance,” “Lady, Lady, Lady” and “Seduce Me Tonight,” as well as the movie’s main theme, “Flashdance… What a Feeling.” Session drummer Keith Forsey was assigned to write the lyrics and had help from Irene Cara after they watched the audition scene. Moroder wanted Joe Esposito to sing the theme, but Paramount wanted a well-known female singer. And after all, Cara had stipulated that if she wrote the lyrics, she would get to sing the song.
So many of the lyrics match how Alex feels about dancing in front of the drunks at Mawby’s. She says, “I never see them. You go out there, and the music starts, and you begin to feel it. And your body just starts to move. I know it sounds really silly. But something inside you just clicks, and you just take off. You’re gone. It’s like you’re somebody else for a second.” This freedom she describes is reflected in the lyrics, “When I hear the music, close my eyes, feel the rhythm wrap around, take ahold of my heart, what a feeling.”
Another song that was a big deal in the movie is “Maniac” by Michael Sembello. It was written with Dennis Matkosky and inspired by a story about a serial killer on the news and had some of its original lyrics written after a viewing of Maniac. Lyne heard a demo and wanted to use the song, saying “One of the tunes I’d heard had a kind of a chime in it, that kind of ‘bing-bong-bing-bong-bing-bong’, like that, and I said, “Let’s use that. Let’s use that as a kind of a motive, as a kind of a driving thing for a dance.””
*Flashdance was inspired by the real-life story of Maureen Marder, a construction worker and welder by day and dancer by night at Gimlets, a Toronto strip club who wanted to be a professional dancer. Tom Hedley wrote the story outline and Marder signed a release giving Paramount Pictures the right to portray her life story on screen for $2,300.
Sadly, her attorney was present for that and despite the movie making so much money, she was not entitled to more when she sued.
Paramount also went to court over the movie as the Jennifer Lopez video “I’m Glad,” which was directed by David LaChapelle, went a bit further on the side of ripoff than tribute. Her label, Sony, agreed to pay a licensing fee for the video.
**Monique Gabrielle is one of the dancers there.