What the Hell Were They Thinking?!

Kids, meet the original Step Up. Academy Award nominee John Travolta, Cynthia Rhodes and Finola Hughes star in Staying Alive.

Staying AliveCast of Characters:
Tony Manero – John Travolta
Jackie – Cynthia Rhodes
Laura – Finola Hughes
Jesse – Steve Inwood

Director – Sylvester Stallone
Screenplay – Sylvester Stallone & Norman Wexler
Based on characters created by Nik Cohn
Producer – Robert Stigwood & Sylvester Stallone
Rated PG

Set six years after Saturday Night Fever, Tony Manero (John Travolta) left Brooklyn for Manhattan, living in a flophouse and working as a dance instructor and club waiter, hoping for a big break on Broadway.

Tony’s big break finally arrives with a role in the dance production Satan’s Alley, which also features his girlfriend Jackie (Cynthia Rhodes). However, tensions rise between him and Jackie the moment he involves himself with the show’s overly-confident lead Laura (Finola Hughes).

That’s just what this film needs – a love triangle.

I can’t think of any other actor that has had a more up and down film career than John Travolta. His career started off good with Brian De Palma’s Carrie, Saturday Night Fever (which earned him his first Best Actor nomination) and the popular musical Grease. Then down we go with Moment by Moment. He’d soon rebound with Urban Cowboy and another De Palma film, Blow Out, but then came another free-fall, this time a giant, decade-long one that began with Staying Alive, the sequel to Saturday Night Fever, Two of a Kind, a film that reunited him with Grease co-star Olivia Newton-John, and that talking baby trilogy. Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to break out the defibrillator paddles and revive his career with Pulp Fiction (which earned him his second Best Actor nomination). From there, it seemed his career was back on track, following the Tarantino classic with Get Shorty, A Civil Action and Primary Colors.

Then Battlefield Earth came along and put a stop to all that.

As unnecessary of a sequel that you will ever see, Staying Alive is brought to us by producer Robert Stigwood, who produced many hits like Tommy, Saturday Night Fever, and Grease… but also gave us Grease 2 and 1978’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (at the time, the most mind-bogglingly horrific use of the Fab Four’s music, saving a spot at the bottom for Across the Universe which would arrive almost 30 years later). Saturday Night Fever had the characters, the story and one of the best film soundtracks ever made, and all of those elements come to a screeching halt here. This isn’t so much a sequel as it is a 90-minute long music video. It opens with Travolta auditioning for a dance show directed by Kurtwood Smith (aka Red Foreman in a blink and you’ll miss it appearance where he’s undoubtedly thinking everyone’s dancing like a dumbass), then continues on with more manic dancing from Travolta as he leads his class in what I believe is Operating Thetan Level IV of the Path to Scientology.

The remainder of the film’s plot unfolds as follows:

1) First-Act

  • Dance number
  • Musical montage
  • Momentary break to allow characters to act melodramatic with one another

2) Second-Act

  • Dance number
  • Musical montage
  • Momentary break to allow characters to act melodramatic with one another

3) Third-Act

  • Dance number
  • Musical montage
  • John Travolta struts

What made Saturday Night Fever so memorable was the sense of reality given to the characters, the setting and the story. The dance scenes were obviously entertaining and full of energy, and the Bee Gees’s electrifying soundtrack helped, but they were part of an ensemble of pieces that all made the film work. Take the dance scenes and montages out of Staying Alive, and you’ll probably be left with about two minutes of footage. Other than main character Tony Manero, there’s only one throwback to the previous film where he revisits his mother back in his hometown of Brooklyn. It’s there that we get such heartwarming exchanges of dialogue such as…

“This house seems so much smaller than when I used to live in it.”

“What do you want me to do, stretch it?”

“Nah, ma, just making an observation… Oh my Gawd, I feel so egg-zited!”

Oddly enough, that’s as intelligent as the dialogue gets.

Alongside John Travolta, you’ll recognize another familiar name in the credits: Sylvester Stallone (whose brother Frank has a small role as Jackie’s rhythm guitarist, the worst of all musicians to date according to Tony), fulfilling the film’s trinity as director, co-writer and co-producer.

You’d think he wouldn’t want his name credited that many times with a film like this.

Prior to Staying Alive, Stallone had proven his chops as a director with a solid effort in Rocky II, also writing the film as well as its predecessor (for which he received a Best Original Screenplay nomination). Focusing his sights toward a dance film, Stallone couldn’t appear any more like a fish out of water as he piles on heavy-handed scene after heavy-handed scene of dance routines and flashy montages, with the occasional moment where a character or two talks so we’re reminded that there are actually people in this movie.

It all leads up to the final set piece of the Broadway production called Satan’s Alley, the big break Tony Manero’s been looking for. While it’s described by the show’s irritable director (whose sole purpose in this movie is to bark orders at his cast like a dickhead) as a harrowing descent into hell, it ends up looking so laughably gaudy and flamboyant it needs to be seen to be believed.

Picture hell if it resembled anything similar to Xanadu. If you’ve seen that movie it shouldn’t be hard to do as both settings are pretty much one in the same.

The only reasonable explanation I can make of the final show is that Travolta must’ve been so desperate to achieve the box office success he got with Saturday Night Fever he was willing to make a deal with the Devil. And much like Doctor Faustus, he had to have learned quickly, upon seeing this film, that you should always be careful what you wish for.

The characters are some of the most one-note types you’ll see onscreen. This is coming from Stallone who, yes, gave us Cobra, Over the Top and Rhinestone, but still created the genuine, in-depth characters we got in Rocky (at least for the first two films and 2006’s Rocky Balboa). Any depth that was found in Tony Manero back in Saturday Night Fever is now gone and he’s reduced to a shallow being who sidesteps on his girlfriend without care, yet somehow has the balls to take offense when Finola Hughes’s icy queen bitch treats him like a one-night stand. Jackie is the cliche long-suffering girlfriend of Tony’s, whose patience in dealing with his philandering ways is worthy of sainthood. We know exactly how much he pains her, not from any conversation piece packed with emotion, but from the number of songs she sings with her band where she longingly looks back at Tony like one of those sad, abused puppy dogs we see on those ASPCA commercials.

Finally, the film closes with Tony building anticipation within Jackie on his next move.

“Know what I wanna do?”

“What?”

“You know what I wanna do?!!”

“What?!”

“… Strut.”

… Okay then.

Featuring more uninspired dance sequences than a Dancing with the Stars marathon and enough feathered hair to rival a convention of ’80s glam metal enthusiasts, Staying Alive has gone down in history as one of the most embarrassingly unnecessary sequels of all-time. Stallone has done great work prior to this, and so has Travolta, yet while this may not be the worst film either star has worked on in their careers (e.g., a certain sci-fi ode to L. Ron Hubbard), it’s still hilariously bad enough for the both of them to repress it far back into their minds in order to completely forget it ever existed.

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