It's five years later for Tony Manero. The fever still burns!
Staying Alive suffers from sequel syndrome. Most of the movie lacks the grit, gravitas, and grace of Saturday Night Fever. Tony's attitude is toned down, while his body is toned up. As Tony goes, so goes Staying Alive: it lacks the attitude of its predecessor and compensates with sparkle, "meaningful" looks, and lots of slow motion. For all its faults, Staying Alive is entertaining enough, and when the film finally gets a grip (about halfway through). it perks right up.
Here's a litmus test for you: If by the end of the opening credits you are fidgeting in your seat, looking at your watch, or yawning, you might want to pass on the rest of the movie.
Facts of the Case
Tony Manero has set his sights on Broadway. He auditions for shows while holding down jobs as a dance instructor and waiter. Despite frequent relapses into dumb punk mode, it is clear that Tony is trying to be a more patient and better mannered dude.
He lives in a dingy motel, but occasionally shacks up with a sweet dancer named Jackie. Tony dumps on her, takes her for granted, and she lets him. Love strikes Tony when he goes to watch her dance on the last night of her Broadway show. The object of his newly awakened desire is Laura, the spicy lead in the show.
He makes an embarrassing attempt to hit on her, but they end up in the sack anyway. The second act consists of Tony being a four-letter word while Laura and Jackie shoot icy stares at each other.
Tony gets his big break and goes for it, against all odds. Will he triumph or collapse under the harsh lights and harsher audiences of Broadway?
Any comparison to Saturday Night Fever will prove Staying Alive inferior. The soundtrack in Saturday Night Fever is an integral part of the film. The songs assert themselves and really make the movie. In Staying Alive, the songs assert themselves, but for the most part are really annoying and heavy handed in their symbolism. The dancing in Saturday Night Fever is captured with raw clarity and pure funkiness. The dancing in Staying Alive is often not shown in favor of slow motion closeups and impressionistic shots of two people moving in the same space. Staying Alive portrays dancing in the same way that Any Given Sunday portrays football: an indistinct impression of the people involved using overwrought camera work that gives an imperfect understanding of the action.
Perhaps the starkest contrast between the two is the environmental linearity of Staying Alive. Saturday Night Fever was organic, raw, even brutal. Each character had motivations, internal conflicts, and coping mechanisms; their interactions were edgy, compelling. Saturday Night Fever at times was completely non-linear, which added drama and tension. Tony functioned within an environment. He reacted to it, chafed against it, and ultimately transcended it. In contrast, Staying Alive was short on context, motivation, and environmental richness. Tony has a goal, pursues it, tangles with people along the way, and finally achieves it. His interactions are of the moment, and really quite muddled.
The film unfolds in this stupefying, glossy fashion until it gradually finds a pulse. It snuck up on me, but the plot finally worked itself into a semblance of the Saturday Night Fever magic. The moment I felt a stir of excitement was when I saw the wires and beams of the bridge. The bridge was such a powerful symbol in Saturday Night Fever: it signified a boundary with an unattainable life on the other side. They spent a lot of time and emotion on that bridge, and finally Tony got across it. When he set foot on it again, I immediately felt a connection between the two films, and a pang of emotion for him. He goes back to his old house and has a pretty touching conversation with his mother. He expresses remorse and she chides him, praising the brashness and conviction that got him out of Brooklyn. Those moments set the tone for the rest of the film. Subsequently, he seems more like Tony freakin' Manero!
It is only the fleeting connection with the first film that saves this one. Most of Staying Alive is a grueling endurance test of soap opera acting painted in superheavy glamour, punctuated by cheesy Frank Stallone compositions. At least the soap opera acting comes honestly: Finola Hughes appeared in All My Children, General Hospital, and similar TV fare.
One of the funniest things about this DVD is a blurb on the back: "SPECIAL FEATURES NOT RATED." Now that is funny. To what special features do they refer? That's right, folks, we have another Paramount special on our hands. No extras, no cleanup on the transfer, mediocre 5.1 mix. To be more specific, the transfer is grainy, artifact-ridden, and generally indistinct, while the sound is unbalanced and overly aggressive. Nothing to see here folks. Want a special feature? Try the Staying Alive drinking game—take a shot every time you see "Sylvester Stallone" in the opening credits. You will quickly be in a better frame of mind to enjoy the rest of the movie.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Stallone brothers brought a smile to my face (Sly Stallone had a gratuitous, none-too-subtle cameo) as they hammed their way through. Frank Stallone and Cynthia Rhodes manage to perform a catchy duet at one point that became a minor hit. Say what you will about Sylvester Stallone's ham factor, he knows how to fashion a dramatic, upbeat denouement. Tony has made the backstage environment hostile by pissing off his girlfriend, the director, and his co-star. Stallone then turns Tony's performance in the show into a triumph over the obstacles of backstabbing and pettiness. Unfortunately, he makes Tony look too much like Rambo and act too much like Rocky. The end is a surrealistic and undoubtedly symbolic dance number, with the dancing symbolizing combat between Tony and Laura. When Tony breaks out into a solo dance, I couldn't help the smile on my face. And his triumphant strut out the door was reminiscent of the funkiness of Saturday Night Fever. These are cheerful splashes of color on a muddy canvas.
Travolta does manage some irascible Manero charm, and it is neat to see how he portrays Tony's struggles with maturity. Yet it is clear that Travolta did not have the carte blanche to rescue this film like he did in the first one.
If you can avoid any comparisons to its predecessor and tolerate the saturation of '80s glam, Staying Alive offers some banal yet uplifting moments. Stallone does his thing through Tony Manero in a sort of directorial channeling. Some of the dialogue and character interactions will grab you, and Staying Alive does give you a little bit more Manero. Exploitation, tackiness, and laziness cloud what could have been a much better movie. Too often, shots of people looking at each other stand in for interaction, and frenetic camera work/editing substitute for dancing.
Sly Stallone is sentenced to read "War and Peace" in a room with no mirrors. Frank Stallone is remanded to the Suzuki School of Music. John Travolta is excused; he has a note from his doctor explaining his chronic, five-year fever. Paramount is granted leniency on the charge of poor DVD production; expected financial gains must be weighed against the cost of producing a disc and cleaning up a transfer.
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