Flashdance: Nostalgia and Nuance
New Year is traditionally a time for looking back and looking forward. And few stage shows look back to the 1980s more than Flashdance - one of the most iconic films of that decade. Emma Fraser takes a look at our fascination with everything 'retro' and how easy it is to view the past through rose-tinted spectacles.
The 80s – Rubix cubes, leotards, Madonna and big hair. A hilarious stereotype of a ten-year period that is a sure-fire hit for theme parties. But what about the other aspects of the 1980s, the ones that we don’t dress up to remember? Global recession, unemployment, mass strikes, Chernobyl, Thatcherism (well, maybe we dress up as her from time to time). People who lived through the 80s will remember all of these darker moments as defining features of the decade, so why are we still so obsessed with it?
It’s easy to romanticise the past; just like a break-up, we tend to remember all the best moments and blur out the bad ones, so what we are left with is a rose-tinted memory of a time where things were better, when that is often far from the truth. Art exists to mirror reality back at us, usually through a filter of satire, humour, poignancy or exaggeration, and musical theatre is no different. Almost every show that GMT has staged has been set in the past (or in a fantasy land, but that doesn’t count), so even from this small sample it’s clear that we are obsessed with looking back. But why? What’s so great about the past that we remain so wedged in it through art, literature and theatre? Surely there are contemporary issues that beg to be explored, so why fixate on time gone by?
My theory is that there is an element of playing God when it comes to re-enacting the past. No matter what the subject matter – and let’s face it, there’s quite a range – we have the power to change history. The mistakes we made the first time around can be picked up, dusted off and made right, sent on their way to entertain and speak to audiences for decades to come, so that the original slip-ups remain long forgotten. How better to deal with the traumas of one’s own past than by literally re-writing the way they played out? No one ever has to know the truth.
But artistic nostalgia is more than just Tipp-ex with jazz hands. As we’ve seen countless times, the issues of the past are often all-too present; the gang warfare of West Side Story continues to affect young people across the world, kids everywhere are fighting to make it in a dire economy - just like the ones in Fame, and unemployment, corruption and exploitation are still global problems – as explored in The Threepenny Opera. Perhaps it’s simply easier to comment on current affairs through the opaque layers of history, if for no other reason than it’s easier to dismiss as pastiche. My guess is it would be much harder to stomach the stark realisations that a show based on terrorism or food banks would bring to the surface.
So while Alex may struggle to achieve her dreams in the man’s world of the 1980s, she reflects the seemingly never-ending struggle of many women in 2014s workplaces, trying to be taken seriously in the boy’s clubs of the City while their co-workers enjoy Page 3 over a morning coffee. It seems that no matter what period they may be set in, we can find contemporary issues reflected in all forms of art – whether they be a Banksy on the side of a building or a group of people in legwarmers dancing like there’s no tomorrow. Let’s just hope that in 25 years they manage to make us look this good.