When Flashdance hit theaters 40 years ago, on April 15, 1983, it seemed destined to fail. Young director Adrian Lyne had passed on the script twice because he felt it lacked depth, but he ultimately took on the project because needed a second movie under his belt. Jennifer Beals was preparing to start her first year at Yale, figuring she’d missed out on the lead role. On a lark, jazz-influenced musician Michael Sembello co-wrote and performed a pop track with lyrics about a serial killer, partially inspired by the movie Maniac, and when music supervisor Phil Ramone heard the cut he asked Sembello and collaborator Dennis Matkosky to tweak the words for Flashdance. The movie studio and record label releasing the soundtrack had little confidence in the movie; Paramount reportedly sold off 25% of their stake in the film, and Casablanca Records only pressed a modest amount of vinyl, which would lead to an immediate shortage.
When the $7 million movie opened, it grossed $4 million during the first weekend. Then Lyne’s film consistently made bank over six months (it was No. 1 for three weekends straight and bounced around the Top 10 thereafter), eventually grossing $90 million domestically and $201 million globally. The first collaboration between producers Jerry Bruckheimer and the late Don Simpson, Flashdance was the sleeper hit that broke their careers. The film was nominated for four Oscars and won one for Best Music, Original Song for Irene Cara’s title track. The soundtrack, propelled by the hits “Maniac” and “Flashdance ... What A Feeling,” eventually went No. 1, won three Grammy Awards, and sold over 6 million copies domestically (and at least as many more globally).
In the movie, 18-year-old welder Alex Owens (Beals) dances at an arty strip club at night and aspires to be a professional ballet dancer, but she fears failing an arts school audition so keeps pushing it off. Meanwhile, her older boss Nick Hurley (Michael Nouri) is trying to romance her but also wants to support her dreams. The film focuses on Alex and her artistic friends as they seek greater things for themselves and to escape the doldrums of their blue-collar life in Pittsburgh. The story was basic, the visuals dazzling, the music infectious, and the message simple: Don’t be afraid to chase your dreams, no matter how daunting they may seem. Flashdance may not be deep, but it hit a nerve; some fans found it life-changing. Its two hit songs remain popular today, and film and TV creators still pay homage to the movie. A Paramount+ series is reportedly in the works. And the film’s new 4K restoration, captured beautifully in a new Ultra-HD Blu-ray release, looks and sounds great. Lyne sat down for a video chat with The A.V. Club to look back on the music-driven film, its tumultuous production, and how it became the little hit that could.
The A.V. Club: Are you surprised by how people pay homage to and parody the water dance scene to this day?
Adrian Lyne: I remember when I had to present it to the studio, I had executives sitting on bleachers in a studio. And I was at the bottom, winding a hose pipe around this poor girl and trying to explain to them what I meant by a wet dance. I knew I wanted to do a wet dance, I just didn’t know how to do it really. The skepticism [from] these people was just hilarious to see. I felt about three inches tall, it was just awful. And at that stage, I didn’t hadn’t got a clue how to do it. I just knew it would look good if the water flew everywhere and drenched the audience and made them pissed off because they were getting wet.
AVC: You directed your first feature film, Foxes, in 1980, and before that, you directed TV commercials. Even then, you had a very atmospheric, fast-paced style. Some of that shows up in the visual style of Foxes, particularly the concert sequence with the band Angel. Were you keeping pace with what MTV was doing at the time, or did it just happen that your style meshed with the zeitgeist?
AL: Well, to be honest, the movies sort of happened before MTV. MTV was opening at that time. A lot of people say, “Oh, it’s like MTV videos and stuff.” But at that stage, MTV was barely in evidence. So my movie had bits of it all over MTV, but at that stage, it wasn’t too visible.
AVC: Were there any lessons that you learned from the commercials and Foxes that you applied to Flashdance?
AL: I suppose so. When I did commercials I always used to operate [the camera] myself. When I started out making movies, I would operate quite a lot myself, although it was difficult because when you do a commercial the shot only has to last five or six or seven seconds or whatever. All of a sudden, your style has to change a bit because obviously the [movie] shots last longer, so that was a little bit tough to learn. Although I had a good relationship with [cinematographer] Don Peterman on this. I remember him saying, “I want to shoot this all at F2.” So [the lens] was wide open and there was very small depth of field which gave it its look really.
AVC: Flashdance was ahead of the curve on a few things—the MTV-style sensibility, integrating pop music, and the breakdancing sequence on the street.
AL: It was the first time you really saw breakdancing in a commercial movie, and I remember going to the head of the studio and showing him the sequence. I remember him saying, “What’s that in for? It’s not pushing the plot forward, take it out!” And I begged him to let me keep it, like a minute of it. I’m glad I did because people in this theater were just blown away with it—seeing that for the first time was terrific.
AVC: Three people doubled for Jennifer Beals in the climactic audition. French actress Marine Jahan was the movie’s main dancer, award-winning American gymnast Sharon Shapiro did the big leap, and since neither of them could master the breakdancing, a young B-boy named Crazy Legs [Richard Colón] spun on the floor in one shot. What was the process like getting him ready for that shot? And how much flack do you think he probably got from his macho friends?
AL: A lot. Because he was one of a group of gangs, I think, from the Bronx. I first found out about them at a club called The Roxy where they’d be doing their breakdancing and competitions. He had to put the tights on and the stockings over his hairy legs, and he had to put a wig on. He wasn’t too keen on any of it, but he did it in the end. It’s quick, it works.
AVC: A lot of people love the movie, but some still poke fun at certain things, like the fact that she’s an 18-year-old welder in an older, all-male environment.
AL: It was a flight of fancy. Quite often, I think that people take movies too desperately seriously, you know? Of course it’s ridiculous, but it doesn’t matter. I mean, that’s what you go to the movies for, isn’t it?
AVC: Are you surprised at how many people have told you and others how much that film meant to them in terms of pursuing their dreams?
AL: A lot, yes, a lot. People would ring me up. At that stage, there wasn’t any email, obviously, but they’d send me letters and stuff. It was very gratifying, really. Even though it’s a kind of naive thought, it’s nice [to think] that if you want something enough, maybe you’ll get it.
AVC: The ending is rather ambiguous. Yes, Alex comes out of the audition happy. Nick’s got flowers for her. But we don’t really know if she made the cut. We don’t get the final reaction from the judges. And we don’t actually know for sure if that relationship is going to last. Did you purposely want to have it be positive, but not completely?
AL: I guess I’m a romantic. I felt they were going to stay together, and I felt she’d get the job. But I’m easy. [laughs] It’s funny, I had to shoot the ending on the first day. It was ridiculous. We shot it in Pittsburgh. I think just for the schedule, that’s the way it worked. Now I wouldn’t do it. I would bitch and moan about it, but I had to do it then. And it worked out. It’s funny seeing that I used a pit bull because at that stage nobody was frightened of pit bulls. They didn’t know what a pit bull was, really.
AVC: Even though this is an R-rated movie, do you think a lot of younger teens saw this back in the day?
AL: I think so. Lots of people would ring me up and say, “You know they’re dancing in the theater in Times Square.” And I didn’t know that. I think that’s fabulous. That’s gratifying. People would ring me up and say that the girls in the street, on Fifth Avenue or wherever in New York, were wearing those T-shirts hanging off the shoulder. I went out there and looked and there were.
AVC: Jennifer Beals and Michael Nouri had good chemistry on screen. What were they like off-camera?
AL: They were very close. I’m not sure whether they went out together or anything. I remember when I first saw Jennifer Beals, I remember the impression it made on me. She had come in and she was rather depressed because she’d lost all of her luggage apparently on the plane, and apparently she’d slept out in a park before doing the interview. But I remember just how smitten I was with her. And I went rushing through to Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson to say, “You’ve got to see this girl. She’s tremendous.” I saw the movie a couple of days ago, and I hadn’t seen it for 15 years. I think she’s the reason it works. She had a vulnerability that was very refreshing. She was only 17 or something. So it forgave a lot, you know?
AVC: Michael Nouri was twice her age, and I don’t know if people would play it the same way today. Did anybody think about that back then?
AL: I don’t think people thought about it. I remember that Kevin Costner tested with three girls. At that stage, I think he was a carpenter. I’d done a commercial with him, funnily enough. And I remember he sat in bed with three of them for 200 bucks.
AVC: What was his audition for Nick Hurley like?
AL: He wasn’t auditioning. It had already been cast.
AVC: He was the audition stand-in?
AL: Yes, and I remember thinking he was good.
AVC: Lee Ving is the frontman for the hardcore punk band Fear, and he really seemed to enjoy his role as Johnny C. Did you ever go see him perform live?
AL: I think I did before the movie. But he was fun to work with, man. And when he said, “You’re a couple of cunts,” that’d be a little more difficult to do now.
AVC: Jennifer Beals doesn’t seem to age, does she?
AL: You’re right. There’s a scene where she’s smoking. Everybody’s smoking in the movie. She’s just leaning against a wall in the loft, and she’s got jeans without the knees. She just looked breathtaking. I remember while I was shooting, I was just in awe really. She looked marvelous.
AVC: She was very racy during the lobster scene.
AL: It’s funny, there was only one great line in the script, and I was talked out of leaving it in the movie. I’m still enraged about it now. There was a line where she’s in the posh restaurant. They’re having a meal together before his wife comes in, and she’s looking down at the plate. She’s got lobster with broccoli, and she looks at the broccoli and says, “What are these little trees?” I thought it was just very endearing and a sweet line. Somebody talked me out of leaving it in. I’m still annoyed about it because it made her childlike, not so knowing, and the scene would have been better if I left it in.
AVC: The screenplay was reportedly based on those two dancers up in Toronto. One of them, Maureen Marder, was reportedly a construction worker and welder who danced at night. Did anybody beyond co-screenwriter Tom Hedley get any insight about their experiences?
AL: We went to see them, and it was true. It was quite moving, really. They had real pretensions of being legitimate dancers, and they had their sets that they would bring with them. I tried to do the same thing, for example, with that TV that had a fan in it. There was a light in it as well, so there’s a big shadow on the wall. It’s the sort of thing they could have done. It was sort of low-tech. I remember being impressed with what they were doing.
AVC: How closely did you work with composer Giorgio Moroder on integrating all of his music into the film?
AL: I did work with him. I also worked very closely with [music supervisor] Phil Ramone, who I was very fond of. I thought he was terrific. I remember going in one day and saying to him that I’d heard a track from a German group called Kraftwerk that was quite popular at that time. I said they’ve got a really nice sort of motif in the rhythm section—bing bong, bing bong, bing bong, like a kind of bell. I said, “I think that might be good for ‘Maniac’.” So he put it in. To be honest, we stole the idea from Kraftwerk.
AVC: Every movie has some sort of struggle to overcome. What was the biggest one for Flashdance?
AL: A big one was that [wet] dancing. Oh, there was all sorts of things—“You must stop using the smoke!” Because they [executives] would watch the rushes and they’d see three takes where you couldn’t see anybody because of the smoke. They would think maybe you were gonna use that one. [chuckles] So I continued using the smoke, but I had somebody on the door who would watch for any executives coming. And we used another way of getting the smoke which was like a sort of biscuit thing, which I think was sulfur. It was absolutely lethal, but it was easy to put out.
AVC: Anything else you can think of to tell us?
AL: Two weeks before the movie came out, not being able to get anybody on the phone [at the studio]. Literally, nobody would return my calls. It was almost funny it was so ridiculous. I remember having a showing at a place called The Village, this massive theater in Westwood in L.A. I had a friend, this old lady who was a producer, and she said, “You got a bona fide-y hit, kiddo.” Then I remember hearing Giorgio Moroder speaking to somebody, and he didn’t know I was listening. He said, “Yes, but is it any good?” [laughs] After seeing it with that rapturous applause. He was full of misgivings about the whole thing.