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Staying Alive

Paramount // PG // October 8, 2002
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Gil Jawetz | posted October 29, 2002 | E-mail the Author

After a couple decades of being savaged by critics you're probably expecting me to trash Staying Alive. Well, you'd be wrong, my friend, because what you don't know is that this film is one of my all-time favorites. Now, granted, the film's director and cowriter, auteur Sylvester Stallone, probably didn't envision me rolling around the floor, gripping my belly, laughing at his creation, but if his goal was simply to bring joy to his audience, he couldn't have succeeded better.

Staying Alive has to be one of the most ludicrously ill-conceived films ever made. Ostensibly a sequel to the disco classic Saturday Night Fever, Staying Alive picks up the character of Tony Manero, played once again by John Travolta, a couple of years after the Bee Gees-scored finale of that film. Now, however, Tony has left Brooklyn and is living in a Manhattan flea-bag trying to hustle jobs as a Broadway dancer. The film takes Tony, the unpolished mook from the streets, and drops him in a risky relationship with a glitzy high-society dancer (Finola Hughes), something that doesn't sit well with his more down-to-earth girlfriend (Cynthia Rhodes). Chance and hard work give Tony the opportunity to play a lead role in a major Broadway production. But does he take it? Does he dare?

The basic plot is nothing special. Dozens of movies follow the identical progression. What makes Staying Alive so deliriously special is the unbelievably loopy atmosphere, dialog, music and costumes. Stallone (an extremely odd choice to cowrite and direct. He had exactly what to do with the first film?) must have never seen a Broadway musical in his life. The shows shown here are about as authentic as one of Ed Wood's cardboard gravestones. Just when the weird synth-rock score, unbelievably stupid choreography and gold braid headbands seem to be enough he has to throw in a shot of the orchestra - which consists of instruments like trombone and trumpet. What they have to do with the Eighties Casio-pop music is beyond me.

The dialog itself is like a character in the film. Nearly every line is a non-sequitur, from Travolta's constant references to "breakfast" to his inept wooing of Hughes ("Where exactly are you imported from, the vicinity of England?") to minor sluts at a bar ("Guys like you aren't relationships. You're exercise!"). Every head-scratching minute of this movie sounds like a radio dial stuck between two different stations.

The music may be the most rewarding thing in the film. The Bee Gees title song is reprised from the first film but is inexplicably out of date here (even though it's still a great tune.) There are a few "new" Bee Gees songs here, mostly unmemorable. Where the film does excel, however, is in providing ample proof of the musical talent of the director's brother, the inimitable Frank Stallone. Not only are his amazing rock mega-classics "Far From Over" and "Moody Girl" here but his gorgeous duets with Cynthia Rhodes on "Finding Out the Hard Way" and "Never Gonna Give You Up," not to mention Tommy Farager's rousing "So Close to the Fire" and "Look Out For Number One." Actually, these songs are so jaw-droppingly terrible that you have to laugh until you cry. When Rhodes and Stallone perform their barroom rock act they are so incredibly out of place (especially considering the bar looks suspiciously like punk temple CBGB's) that every big-belted shimmy move from Rhodes and every squealing guitar solo from Stallone has the ability to turn the hardest audience member into a quivering pool of guffawing jelly.

Topping it all off are the performances. Travolta is howlingly bad as Manero. What kind of sympathy we're supposed to have for the guy is beyond me. He's a lout plus a bit of a stalker. His greasy, sweaty torso may have gotten him the gig but his freshly-shaven ape looks and marble-mouthed line readings make it tough to understand how he's ever been taken seriously. Finola Hughes (longtime star of All My Children) is suitably trashy in a role that would have worked equally well for a drag queen. She struts around in fur coats like she's the greatest thing since sliced ham and everyone else in the movie seems to agree. The funny thing is that for every statement about how her dancing is like "watching smoke move" she's actually an incompetent dancer who kicks her legs a lot and occasionally flails her arms. None of the dancing in this movie is impressive (or even real dancing) but hers has a special slot as the worst. And poor Cynthia Rhodes, who always plays some sort of put-upon character elicits the most sympathy as the sad puppy-eyed girlfriend to Travolta's sleezeball. This film is part of the Great Trilogy of Cynthia Rhodes Eighties movies (along with Flashdance and Dirty Dancing) over the course of which she is forced to endure innumerable indignities from having a botched abortion to stripping in a dive. Her humiliation in Staying Alive is limited to being played for a fool by the lecherous Manero character but she still comes off as the sweetest member of the cast. Oh, Cynthia! Our tragic heroine!

And, finally, there's the issue of "Satan's Alley," the musical in which that Travolta lands the lead. Covered in god-awful Bob Mackie costumes, the cast writhes and moans through what one character calls a "journey through hell that ends with an ascent into heaven." If the heaven is a heaven of schlock bliss, then that pretty much sums up Staying Alive as well.

The anamorphic widescreen video looks fine although Stallone's lifeless imagery will always be dull and ugly. The print starts with some dirt but is mostly clean and clear.

The film is available in Dolby Digital 5.1 and stereo surround. Both sound fine with the 5.1 actually sounding pretty good especially during the music. The production is decent. A very funny French track is also available as are English and Spanish subtitles.

None. Not even a Frank Stallone commentary track!

If you've ever wanted your own Mystery Science Theater experience, this turkey is for you. While Paramount's disc is typically bare and outrageously overpriced I guarantee you that if you have a good sense of humor and like-minded friends this disc will get plenty of play in your house. There are a lot of cheesy films from this decade, including Ice Castles and anything with Theresa Russell but none is as outrageously, thick-headedly stupid as good old Staying Alive.

Email Gil Jawetz at [email protected]
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