The Test of Time #3: Staying Alive
Staying Alive (1983)
Starring: John Travolta, Cynthia Rhodes, Finola Hughes. Steve Inwood, Julie Bovasso, Kurtwood Smith, Frank Stallone
Written by: Sylvester Stallone and Norman Wexler (Characters by Nik Cohn)
Directed by: Sylvester Stallone
What Is It: The sequel to 1977’s pop culture milestone Saturday Night Fever, which finds former disco superstar Tony Manero (John Travolta) trying to make it big on Broadway, and manipulating women to inflate his ego.
What Critics Said: “Staying Alive is a sequel with no understanding of what made its predecessor work. The first film was funny and touching, powered by a phenomenally successful score. This one is clumsy, mean spirited and amazingly unmusical.” – Janet Maslin, The New York Times
What Audiences Said: Despite a critical drubbing – Staying Alive still has a 0% on Rotten Tomatoes – audiences flocked to the sequel, giving it one of the ten highest box office grosses of 1983, although it made far less than Flashdance, considered at the time to be something of a Saturday Night Fever clone. Time has not been kind to Staying Alive’s reputation. It ranks high on nearly every list of “The Worst Sequels Ever Made.” Entertainment Weekly even gave it the #1 spot, above Batman & Robin.
The Test of Time:
I was convinced, when I saw Staying Alive a few weeks ago, that I had never seen this film before. It turns out my mother took me when I was just a baby. No wonder I now have a spandex fetish.
Staying Alive is a legend in the film industry. As a sequel, it is supposedly so wrongheaded, so charmless, and so totally ill-advised that it deserves ridicule sight unseen. And yet that seems to be Staying Alive’s only lasting contribution to the pop culture landscape: the notion that it sucked. Unlike other notorious crapfests like Plan 9 from Outer Space or Ishtar, watching Staying Alive is considered pretty optional by most film enthusiasts. It’s rarely screened, rarely riffed on, and only infrequently parodied on television series like “The Simpsons.” If Staying Alive is so bad, why aren’t we watching it more often, if only to mock its silliness and learn from its mistakes?
The answer to this question, as I have recently discovered, is because Staying Alive isn’t as bad as we all remember. It’s not a classic, and it certainly lacks the cohesion, cool and barely post-pubescent passion of Saturday Night Fever, but it’s a surprisingly soulful examination of young manhood, told from the perspective of a filmmaker who, like Tony Manero, struggled en route to stardom in the heart of New York City. Staying Alive feels like a highly personal film and, like most personal films, it’s a jumble of hit-or-miss ideas. That said, Staying Alive, like many films of the 1980s, is still occasionally laughable today, if only for the music and wardrobe.
Staying Alive stars John Travolta as Tony Manero, the role that earned him his first Oscar nomination (of two) in 1978. At the end of Saturday Night Fever [spoiler alert for a 36-year-old classic], Tony won the big dance competition, gave away the prize, and engaged in both street violence and attempted rape before planning to move to Manhattan and start his life anew. When Staying Alive begins, we see that, years later, Tony’s existence now consists of one failed chorus line audition after another, a shiftless job as a dance instructor, and a relationship with the good-natured Jackie, a fellow backup dancer played by Dirty Dancing’s Cynthia Rhodes.
Tony is committed to earning his maturity in Staying Alive: he turns down offers of sexy three-ways at a dance club where he now works as a bartender, and appears constantly disappointed at the state of post-disco dancing. (His old haunt, “The 2001 Odyssey Discotheque,” is now a gay nightclub; the era was already over.) While visiting Jackie on the last night of her latest show, Tony sees another particularly talented dancer on stage named Laura, played by Finola Hughes (Emma Frost from the TV movie “Generation X”). Tony quickly falls for Laura, and asks Jackie whether Laura is seeing anybody, which, yeah, hurts Jackie’s feelings. Because Tony is a total dick.
The plot follows Tony as he gets cast in “Satan’s Alley,” an abstract Broadway production co-starring Laura, and eventually working his way up to leading man status right next to her, but at its heart, Staying Alive is actually about how Tony is a dick. He has wonderful chemistry with Jackie, but sleeps around with Laura indiscriminately, simultaneously expressing constant and immature jealousy over Jackie's relationship with Carl, the bass player in her band, played by Frank Stallone (Sylvester Stallone’s brother, who also contributed to the soundtrack). At one point Tony complains that Carl is staring at Jackie, oblivious to the fact that Jackie just walked right off stage in the middle of a song to talk to Tony, ignoring Carl and her responsibilities to the band. Sexual attraction or no sexual attraction, I’d probably stare if my lead singer just ditched me mid-guitar solo.
What. A. Dick. But again, Staying Alive is about what makes this giant dick finally go soft. And yes, I am going to stop talking like that.
Tony’s immature attitudes towards women and romance are tested and eventually obliviated over the course of the film. He turns down the aforementioned, consequence-free, and very hot three-way sex because he’s not looking for “a relationship,” but he only attaches himself to women he clearly views as relationship material: the supportive doormat Jackie, and the out-of-his-league Jackie, to whom Tony declares, “It’s like you really did something with your life. I think you’re significant.” Tony thinks he’s trading upward, believing that Laura is the person he himself will be once he succeeds on his own merits, not realizing that from an emotional perspective, they are astoundingly similar. Laura uses and abuses her sexual partners with no concern for their feelings, just like Tony. It’s a strong dramatic dichotomy, with Tony oblivious to his own passive cruelty until he himself becomes the victim of broken commitments and casual denials from the person he loves that their relationship has meaning. Curiously, the soundtrack by the Bee-Gees – less catchy than their original Saturday Night Fever tunes by about 75% – picks up on the irony way before Tony does. The lyrics “Over you is where I should be, I could be loving you too much,” are pretty on the nose. Too bad Tony can’t hear them. Stupid diegesis.
So the romantic drama works. Even though the hero is a total cad, he’s getting his comeuppance, although it comes a little too easily – Jackie, again, can be a bit of a doormat – and Tony never reaches true enlightenment. But it’s mostly satisfying. Travolta is still great at playing a character with a fragile ego, struggling to prove himself but, in the absence of actual accomplishment, settling for the immediate and superficial satisfaction of being desired by the opposite sex.
When Laura destroys Tony's ego, and he gets a taste of his own medicine, he shuffles back home to Brooklyn for a fine scene with his mother, still played by Julie Bovasso (The Verdict). He attempts to apologize for his angsty behavior as a teen, claiming that “it wasn’t me.” She won’t hear of it. She’s forced to admit that his brashness got him out of their neighborhood, and moving him towards better things. Sure he was a bastard, but that’s part of who he is. The conversation allows Tony to reclaim some of his confidence, tempered now with a bit of humility, and eventually ask Jackie for her help. Thus landing him a starring role in the worst Broadway show in history.
Staying Alive takes place in a strange, mythical universe in which hit Broadway shows have no plot, no dialogue, no singing, and consist only of perverse undulations to god awful music. Tony snags the lead role in “Satan’s Alley,” which sounds like a porno movie, and plays like a porno movie. Tony struts about the stage wearing a loin cloth and a thick veneer of sweat, getting whipped by latex Pulp Fiction gimps and holding Laura’s crotch in his face. The director, played by Steve Inwood, watches the opening night performance and says, “Perfect!” This, my dear readers, is not our universe, nor any I would wish to inhabit.
"Satan's Alley" is all a metaphor, obviously. It’s probably supposed to illustrate Tony’s sexual frustration, descent into bastardry and his ultimate elevation to mature manhood, but I think it may be a better metaphor for Sylvester Stallone’s first break into show business, called A Party at Kitty and Stud’s. Never heard of it? It was renamed Italian Stallion after the success of Rocky, six years later. Still nothing…? A Party at Kitty and Stud's is a porno movie. Sylvester Stallone’s first film was a porno movie. He played “Stud,” if you must know.
Staying Alive feels like a personal film for writer/director Sylvester Stallone, as I mentioned above. It’s about an Italian-American New Yorker struggling to get into show business, clearly talented but lacking in experience and maturity. Tony Manero repeatedly says he promised his mother he’d never do nudity, but is so desperate for a gig that he frequently capitulates to potential agents – who all turn him down, incidentally – that he’s basically willing to do anything. “Satan’s Alley” is only one step away from a porno movie. I mean seriously, look at this thing. This is Tony Manero’s Party at Kitty and Stud’s. It's his first big break, and it’s an embarrassment. Oh sure, the audience seems to love it, but Staying Alive is a movie. Stallone tweaked the finale so it would be a little more satisfying than real life, kind of like the apologetic ending of Annie Hall, but without the apology. This is a director revisiting his past and exorcising his personal demons. It's all laid bare on the screen. It's a mess, but it's pretty infectious. Of course, you could say the same thing about the dumpster behind a clinic…
Okay, Staying Alive isn’t a great movie, or even a particularly good one, but it’s easy to grow fond of Sylvester Stallone’s attempt to turn a Saturday Night Fever sequel – a doomed proposition if ever there was one – into something personal and heartfelt. He’s undone by a series of off-putting costumes and awkward stage shows that are too gauche for words, not to mention a soundtrack by The Bee-Gees (and Stallone's brother Frank) that never reaches the soaring heights of the original film's song listings. But the cast is game, the intent is sincere, and the end result is only as dated as every other movie of the era. Which is pretty damned dated, but what can you do? It was the 1980s, and everyone alive at the time was equally responsible for what was trendy and what wasn’t. I don't know about you, but I miss the spandex.
Does Staying Alive pass The Test of Time? Better than you’d think. It’s a misfire, but at least it grazed the target. It’s nowhere near the quality of The Godfather Part II or Spider-Man 2 or any other sequel that arguably surpassed the original, but it continues the emotional arc of the hero and it doesn't just regurgitate the first film’s plot. It doesn’t feel like a soulless studio cash-in. In that respect, Staying Alive is at least a hell of a lot better than The Hangover Part II or Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. No, Staying Alive is not the worst sequel ever made. In fact, it’s halfway decent. Just don’t watch it immediately after Saturday Night Fever and you'll have a fun experience.
Next week on The Test of Time we’ll take a look at a hit action movie from 1991 that, today, is best known for something it didn't even have: an English accent.
You know, it's true. Every Test of Time I do, I do it for you guys…
William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline's Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast, co-star of The Trailer Hitch, and the writer of The Test of Time. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.