Staying Alive

How Tony got his groove back
★★★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
1983
Director: 
Sylvester Stallone
Starring: 
John Travolta, Cynthia Rhodes, Finola Hughes
The Setup: 
Tony from Saturday Night Fever tries to get his big break on Broadway while emotionally abusing those around him.
Discussion: 

WHAT is it about 80s musicals that just transports them to the very heights of cinematic cheese? For one thing, obviously it’s the horror of what passed for music in the 80s. Add to that the hairstyles, the clothes, the politics… people say the 70s are bad, and sure they are known for a bunch of crazy [and crazily FABULOUS] excesses, but the 80s took everything about that and just made it shitty. It’s insane.

Like a distillation of everything wrong with an entire decade, Staying Alive comes to make us pay for some grievous sin we didn’t even commit. Co-written and directed by SYLVESTER STALLONE, this movie is essentially Rocky joins A Chorus Line. The movie begins with an appalling dance audition number staged to the tune of Stallone’s brother’s hit “Far From Over.” I can’t even remember the name of that Stallone brother. It was like Jake or something? I don’t even have the interest to look it up. The song is sort of like a remake of “Eye of the Tiger” with an 80s-dance vibe. You remember it. But you probably don’t remember how incredibly lame it is. Time has not been kind to that song, or indeed any of the music to be heard here. Much as everyone complained about the 70s, the music of that period sounds amazing now, whereas 80s music sounds like it could be produced on a touch-tone phone. Anyway, the credits sequence opens with these insipid freeze-frames meant to show the agony and ecstasy of dance, but when the title STAYING ALIVE comes blazing out in all its animated glory, you will know that you’re in for cheese of a grade it may be difficult to even conceive of.

The movie then shows Travolta’s Tony Manero walking, and you’ll notice that we do NOT hear music as he walks this time. This proves to be extremely canny characterization. You see, the movie is about how Tony, a big fish in a small pond in Saturday Night Fever [which I haven’t seen in ages and don’t remember], is now a big nothing since he’s moved into Manhattan. One good thing about the movie, and pay attention, because this may be the only positive comment in this review, is the relentlessness with which it treats Tony’s humiliation and narcissism. This only goes so far, but it’s something. I guess.

Anyway, so Tony works as a dance teacher and a waiter in a bar where women leer at his crotch and throw themselves at him with abandon, all the while going for auditions and trying to make it on Broadway. During one montage, he is nastily rebuffed again and again by agents and secretaries, though it’s quite remarkable that he gets in to see them in the first place, and also that he encounters NO other dancers or actors in their offices.

One thing you’ll notice right away is that this movie is wall-to-wall shitty 80s music. And if you like music, and enjoy the cheese of particularly crappy 80s songs, well, there are more than you can shake a stick at! My favorite musical moment is at 6:42 when Tony comes home, turns on the light, and “Bweeeeeaaaawwww…” the music starts. This movie features about 6 songs by the Bee Gees [all midtempo and not even attempting to match the songs from Saturday Night Fever, in the ‘good’ column artistically, I guess], and about 6 songs sung or written by that Stallone brother. Nepotism, hello!!

This movie also takes place on an alternate plane in which Broadway audiences pay money to see non-narrative dance shows in which dancers in ripped 80s costumes perform tacky music video dance routines to songs that sound like an instrumental version of Laura Branigan’s “Gloria.”

But let’s move on to the emotional abuse, of which there is plenty. You see, Tony, our hero, is an utterly irredeemable self-involved asshole, which he proves again and again by heaping emotional manipulation onto the simpering Jackie. She’s his best friend and sometime lover, but he makes a habit of breaking dates with her, then apologizing by flirting outrageously and blatantly implying that he loves and desires her. And you would feel bad for her, if she didn’t just fall for it again and again. After a while you just start to hate her and wish she’d get some fucking self-respect. But this is not to mention the vampy Laura, played by Finola Hughes, who also graced the timeless musical sensation The Apple. Laura is supposed to be this great dancer [though it’s all so terrible you just have to take their word for it], who is plagued by a series of disastrous hairdos and a tendency to preen and pout vigorously during her every shot. She also bears an unnerving resemblance to Princess Leia. Anyway, Laura, too, is an irredeemable self-involved asshole, though we’re supposed to find her charming and attractive, and understand why Tony continues to pursue her, even though any rational person would drop her flat after the first of her many come-on-hot-then-turn-vicious-harpy routines. All of this grows very frustrating by the fifth go-round.

The movie is suffused with a view of women as expendable arm candy who actually find men attractive when they rebuff or dump on them. This is most apparent during the love montage, wherein you’ll notice that Tony is doing ALL of the talking during its many short scenes, while Laura [who probably has a lot more interesting things to say] merely listens and smiles, like a good ‘lil filly. The song that plays during this sequence says, in a man’s voice: “Over you is where I should be… under me is where you should be.” Well, I guess it’s forthright and honest.

There is a good moment when Tony is hanging out [and kicking a few moves] in the hallway of his fleabag hotel while he waits for the one phone to ring and offer him a part. There are a variety of geriatric derelicts hanging around while another shitty 80s song plays on the soundtrack. When the phone rings, he yells “Turn down that music!” and the soundtrack is muted—as though all these elderly derelicts are sitting around blasting the Stallone brother’s “Look Out for Number One!”

But really, there’s just too much to write about. Like the bitchy, bitchy bearded dance director who favors knee-high riding boots worn over his pants, and whom we are led to believe, against all credulity, is STRAIGHT. And also like when Tony finally makes that symbolically-heavy WALK back into Brooklyn, across the Brooklyn Bridge and by 2001 Odyssey [the dance club where SNF was filmed, and which I happen to know is at least 7-10 miles from the Brooklyn Bridge], then back to his mother’s home. Tony, ya know, they DO have a subway. In fact—he RODE it in the first movie. Did he forget?

Anyway, so we get a lot of thematic material about how anger and intensity matter a lot more than dance technique or training [then how come gangster rappers aren’t filling the stages of Lincoln Center?], how Tony’s emotional abuse is really just “bad manners,” and we’re treated to yet another round of “Far From Over,” and 10 solid minutes of shitty dancing and immutable sorrow for the human race while viewing sequences from the triumphant opening of the Broadway sensation “Satan’s Alley.”

I don’t know. I need a new word, because “appalling,” brilliant as it is, just doesn’t go far enough to express the deep mortification some movies can make one feel.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, especially if you love the cheese of 80s music or music videos.