Retro Review: Why “Flashdance” Is Still An Ode to Pittsburgh After 40 Years
In our Retro Review series, we ask our Editorial Intern Emma Malinak to watch made-in-Pittsburgh flicks from the 20th century — long before she was even born.
Flashdance,” set and shot in Pittsburgh, was a staple of the 1980s and is still a timeless story for those who call the city home.
“Flashdance” was the third-highest grossing movie of 1983, and it went on to influence music, fashion and dance trends for the rest of the decade. It tells the story of Alex Owens, played by Jennifer Beals, as she balances her day job as a welder at a steel mill with a budding romance with her boss, gigs at a local bar as a “flashdancer,” and dreams of becoming a professional dancer in an elite repertory company.
“Flashdance,” which celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, has a special place in the hearts of Pittsburgh natives, serving as a time capsule of life in the Steel City. Audiences are drawn into the city from the first scene as Alex rides her bike through the curving city streets and a golden sunrise cascades over the rivers and bridges around her. The skyline is wrapped in a hazy cloud, warm and inviting as it catches hues from the rising sun. In the steel mill, puffs of steam and sparks romanticize the industrial work; workers’ hammers even echo the percussive beats of the song “Flashdance … What a Feeling,” playing in the background.
As a Pittsburgh born-and-raised member of Generation Z, this scene transported me to a city that I’ve only read about in history books. As I watched this movie for the first time, I found myself wondering what the ’80s truly meant for Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh’s history has long been shaped by the steel industry. Pittsburgh experienced a golden age of success throughout the early 20th century due to its dominance in the field; by 1970, it was the third-largest corporate-headquarters city in the country due to its concentration of wealth. But in the 1970s, an influx of imported steel and a shift toward producing light sheet steel ushered an end to the business that put Pittsburgh on the map. By the late 1980s, more than 75% of Pittsburgh’s steel factories had closed.
In 1983, Pittsburgh needed to redefine itself.
I am by no means saying that legwarmers and a killer soundtrack saved Pittsburgh from ruin. However, Alex’s story captures the emotions of a city in transition.
Alex pushes herself to step away from the stable steel mill job, pivoting from its rough-and-tumble environment to the refined, elegant world of professional dance. She also incorporates experimental, modern moves into her routines to be ahead of the curve. In moments of anger and uncertainty, she clings to her stubborn, yet admirable, tenacity.
Alex is Pittsburgh at a crossroads — perhaps lost and unsure, but grounded in the past and determined to adapt. So it’s not a surprise to me that “Flashdance” is still beloved, capturing a moment when Pittsburgh evolved to survive and giving hope to Pittsburghers making big changes in their lives or careers.
A supplemental note to Gen Z readers: some elements of “Flashdance” have not aged well over the past 40 years, and you will have to look past lots of problematic jokes and a slow-moving, somewhat cheesy plot to enjoy this film. But, it’s worth a watch for a trip into Pittsburgh’s history and these five timeless, entertaining elements.
- The chart-topping music: The grammy-winning soundtrack, complete with hits like “Maniac” and “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll,” is still as catchy now as it was 40 years ago.
- The dance numbers: Each song is accompanied by a full-scale music video with heart-stopping choreography. You don’t want to miss this whirlwind tour through the ’80s MTV phenomenon.
- The Pittsburgh references: “Flashdance” screams Pittsburgh, from sets such as the lobby of Carnegie Music Hall to activities such as riding the Duquesne Incline to Mount Washington. There’s also a good dose of Pittsburgh humor, especially in a scene when an aspiring comedian warms up his audience with jokes about the Steelers.
- The ’80s style: While I don’t see fitness leotards coming back in style any time soon, there are some stellar fashion moments in “Flashdance.” You know the wide neck, off-the-shoulder sweatshirt that every Gen Z girl has in her closet? That look was debuted by Alex, so we have her to thank for our lazy weekend outfits.
- The animal sidekick: We’ve all seen our fair share of Disney movies, so we know that princesses always have an adorable animal sidekick. As the equivalent of a Pittsburgh princess, Alex gets her own animal sidekick: a precious pit bull terrier named “Grunt” who steals the show with his big brown eyes.