Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
A tale of two soundtracks: 1977’s Saturday Night Fever mixed a variety of artists along with six Bee Gees songs. It became a cultural phenomenon and sold about 15 million copies. The album for that film’s sequel, 1983’s Staying Alive, mixed a variety of artists with six Bee Gees songs. It vanished without a trace and sold about 15 copies.
This offers a good analogy for both of those movies. Fever provided a lively and gripping look at urban culture, and it remains a strong piece of work that hasn’t aged all that much. Alive, on the other hand, falls totally flat, as it offers a limp trifle that seems almost impossibly dated.
Set a few years after the conclusion of Fever, Staying Alive finds Tony Manero (John Travolta) in Manhattan, where he struggles to get a toehold in the world of Broadway dancers. He doesn’t seem to be doing too hot, and he moonlights as a dancing instructor. His girlfriend Jackie (Cynthia Rhodes) is doing a little better, and Tony goes to watch her in a show.
While at that performance, he espies lead performer Laura (Finola Hughes) and immediately develops a serious case of the hots for this fiery diva. He hits on her and she uses him for sex. Tony wants more but has trouble getting her to give him the time of day, though she still periodically dallies with him.
Matters complicate when Jackie gets Tony an audition for a new show, one that stars Laura. He lands a minor role but eventually snares the male lead. He takes Jackie for granted and wants to have his cake and eat it too, but he’ll eventually have to make a choice. Ooh, do the sparks fly when this love triangle comes to a boil!
I should probably change my punctuation for that last sentence: do the sparks fly when this love triangle comes to a boil? If I do that, the answer comes back a resounding “no!” Nothing about this miserable flick flies, boils, or anything else spice. It limps along and does nothing more than saps one’s will to live.
I decided to check out Staying Alive because I really liked Saturday Night Fever and I felt genuinely curious to see the next chapter in the main character’s life. I knew the sequel received a critical drubbing, but I still thought it might be fun to see more of Tony. Unfortunately, I’m still waiting. There’s no way I consider the boring schlub in Alive to be the same Tony Manero I watched in Fever.
Rather than articulate all of the things I thought were wrong with Alive, perhaps I should instead discuss the aspects that worked. Um… er… okay, I’d better go back to the bad aspects – I can’t think of a single positive about this disaster.
So what problems occurred during Alive>? For one, the movie seemed impossibly dated. Sure, some aspects of Fever haven’t aged pretty well, but despite all the Seventies fashions and whatnot, that flick appears remarkably timeless. Hey, I’m sure there are some guys in Brooklyn who do still dress that way! However, nobody looks like the people in Alive. I know they once did – I was a teenager in the mid-Eighties and still remember those fashions all too well – but Alive seems much more mired in its period than does Fever.
Those elements affect more than just the styles, however. Everything else about Alive appeared stuck in 1983 as well. Director Sylvester Stallone finds every cinematic cliché of the period and piles them on during this film. Worst of the bunch is the ubiquitous pop soundtrack. For better or for worse, Fever pioneered that trend, and Alive takes the use of songs in movies to its absolute nadir.
Not only does Stallone pour on songs when they’re unnecessary or even obtrusive, but he also finds some of the worst music ever committed to tape. The Bee Gees seem to prove that lightning never strikes twice with their material. Frankly, their new tunes don’t appear bad so much as they’re absolutely forgettable. I defy you to watch Fever and not whistle some of the songs after that, but I also challenge you to even vaguely remember any of their work from Alive.
It gets worse from there, largely due to Stallone’s nepotism. He hired brother Frank to compose and play a number of songs in Alive, and he even cast him in a minor role! Frank Stallone’s “Far From Over” pervades this movie and makes the results even more unbearable. The soundtrack’s inundated with Eighties cheese – the heavy synth tones haven’t aged well – but I still have nightmares about “Far From Over”.
Travolta’s performance as Tony in Fever made him a movie star. The actor already maintained a major following from his role as Barbarino on Welcome Back Kotter, but Fever showed that he could emerge as a stellar talent in his own right, even in a dramatic setting. Travolta’s Tony was a stunning creation who held together that movie and made it a fiery success.
This Tony has virtually no connection to the original. In fact, he feels like a totally different character. Travolta sleepwalks through the part and imbues Tony with absolutely none of the energy or charisma we saw in Fever. His Brooklyn accent comes and goes and the character ultimately feels like a milquetoast version of the original.
The supporting actors don’t help. Rhodes offers one of the dullest performances ever put on film. No wonder Tony won’t commit to her; she’s a human sleeping pill! As Laura, Hughes basically does a poor man’s version of Joan Collins. She seems bitchy but flat and brings no spark to the part.
The film “climaxes” with the debut of Tony and Laura’s production, something called “Satan’s Alley”. I’m not an authority on Broadway musicals, but “Satan’s Alley” doesn’t look like something that’d be at home on the Great White Way. Instead, it heavily resembles a Las Vegas show. With its total emphasis on dancing and its scantily-clad, buff performers, this is something we’d see on the Strip.
Except that none of the actors do strip in this “PG” flick. Essentially, that makes Staying Alive a version of Showgirls without the skin. Since that film’s copious female nudity was the only thing that made it watchable, Staying Alive offers absolutely no redeeming qualities. I really did enter my screening of the movie with an open mind, and I wanted to like it. Unfortunately, there’s nothing to enjoy in this brainless, dated, and wholly terrible sequel.