Back in 2001, I sent out a few movie reviews via e-mail. What I really wanted was a blog but I guess I didn’t know how to do it and it wasn’t so easy as it is now, so I used e-mail to send reviews to people I knew (not all of whom asked for it, by the way). Since I’ve just been rewatching Saturday Night Fever, I started thinking about the first movie I reviewed via e-mail – Staying Alive. Plus, a friend who used to get the e-mails asked me a couple of weeks ago why I don’t do them anymore. I found this interesting – someone WANTED more of my weird “reviews” of movies that had been out for years. Anyway, I combed through my old e-mails and found the review.
Before I get to it, I do have to say this about Staying Alive – it sucks. It was a mistake from beginning to end. Watching Saturday Night Fever thirty years after it was made, you can get past the disco (if you want to; I don’t!) and see that there are layers to the story. And no character is absolutely good or bad. It’s a movie about survival and finding your way when you’re very young and have few obvious options. It’s not as if the movie is going to change lives, but it’s a human story with consequences.
In 1983, when John Travolta asked screenwriter Norman Wexler (who wrote S.N.F.) to write Staying Alive, Wexler agreed and then was unable to get along with director Sylvester Stallone. Stallone was coming at the story through a Rocky/Rambo lens – essentially, same story of brute male triumph told through dance. Travolta had to beef up for the role (his body looked more like Stallone’s did in Rambo than the sleek disco-dancing machine it was in Saturday Night Fever) and Stallone messed with the script quite a bit. Ultimately, Wexler declared the film, “vacuous, impoverished, crass and crude.”
By the way, my “review” was amazingly long and I’ve edited it down to be more palatable.
STAYING ALIVE (BARELY)
So here’s what I thought: I love movies about dancing, especially the ones where the characters break into choreographed dances seemingly on the spot, as if dancing is such a part of their lives that they can’t help themselves. I also love men in tacky white suits, which I don’t believe needs to be reserved strictly for proms or white trash weddings. I lovedFever. I love ; I’ve even forgiven him for movies like Michael and Phenomenon. Given all of this, it should follow that I loved , but I didn’t love it, not even a little, and since seeing it I’ve been plagued by questions.
Why didn’t I love it? Why don’t I want to own the soundtrack (which was nominated for a Grammy)? Why couldn’t they have made this movie… better, somehow?
I suspect that it was the egos of the Stallone brothers (Sylvester and Frank, respectively) that ruined this sequel. First, Sylvester (writer, director and producer of the project) ousted the Bee Gees from their disco throne and relegated them to background music, meanwhile promoting Frank and his crummy synth rock instead. Gone are the fun disco rhythms of Saturday Night, and in their place we have Frank’s straining voice and hot electric guitar licks. His lyrics don’t make you bounce quite the way the G’s “You can tell by the way I move my walk…” did. Instead, Frank paralyzes us with, “Take me darling, I am down but I am far from over, I’m running over…“
Setting the music aside, there is the wafer-thin plot to contend with: Tony Manero is back on the scene and he’s taken the leap from his parents’ house in Brooklyn to a flop house in Manhattan so he can be closer to Broadway and his dream of being a professional dancer. With 1.5% body fat and the way this man looks in a loincloth (more on that later), he looks more suited to becoming a Chippendales dancer. In the opening scene, he’s dancing his heart out at a grueling Broadway audition, showing us right away just how tough it is in the competitive World of Dance.
Tony goes to see his girlfriend dance in the chorus of a Broadway show (that sucked by the way) and falls for the lead dancer, a frigid British woman with hair the length of Crystal Gayle’s. He goes backstage and lays some jive on her and it works (of course) because the next day they frolic through a “We’re Getting to Know Each Other” sequence in Central Park. Their day of fun ends with them taking a carriage ride and having sex in her futuristic (for the 80s, now I think we would just call it ugly) round bed. They refer to this coupling later as the time they “made it.”
There was a phenomenon in the 1980s in which, when directors didn’t know how else to move the action along, they would use the “We’re Getting to Know Each Other & Having Fun” montage. They set their montages to terrible rock/pop songs (or, my personal fave, a Motown hit) and then ran a lot of mini-scenes together. A montage can span the course of a day or a few months and works great as a bridge between the time two ill-fated lovers get together and when it all falls to shit. (Stop right now and try to think of the top five foods most often shared in an 80s movie montage… You’re right if you said cotton candy, ice cream, soft pretzels, hot dogs from a street vendor and French fries.)
While alternately frolicking and fighting with Brit Babe, Tony is still stringing his girlfriend along. All three of them end up in a new Broadway production called Satan’s Alley [2009 Rebecca note: Why I didn't mention that this is the ultimate name for a Broadway show, I have no idea. Who wouldn't go see Satan's Alley?] Tony goes through a grueling audition set to roaring lion music to get in, but Brit Babe secures the lead, which may or may not be because she slept with the director.
Satan’s Alley is a “journey through hell towards redemption” in which the male lead is brought to hell (aided by Frank Stallone’s music) and must get out by battling demons (basically pushing them back into clouds of dry ice). During rehearsals it becomes obvious that the Waspy male lead, chosen to throw Brit babe around and hold her over his head, is terrible. Tony must learn the lead dances and overthrow Wasp.
Does he do it? You bet your legwarmers he does. All the dancers pull together: working hard, kicking their legs, jumping and humping the floor like never before, all to Frank’s “Far From Over,” the closest thing to a hit this movie has. Then it’s showtime and Tony leaps across the stage wearing nothing but his loincloth and some baby oil.
Satan’s Alley has no singing or acting in it. Did theater-goers in the early 80s flock to dance epics with nothing but synth rock dance numbers, one after another? I don’t know. I was approximately 10 at the time and living in northeastern Wisconsin. What do I know? But I’m fairly sure that these shows, if they did exist, didn’t attract the gray-haired patrons the film depicted crammed into the theater, oohing and aahing at the S&M leotard wearing dancers brandishing jump rope lassoes.
With a 1 being Jack Frost 2: Revenge of the Killer Snowman, and a 10 being something beyond the scope of my meager reviewing capacities, like Schindler’s List or maybe that English Patient movie everyone was so hot for a few years ago, this movie gets a 3. But no, make that a 3.5. It is John Travolta at his most buff and, as we’ve all seen lately, those years have sadly come and gone.