July 15, 1983
Earlier in this series we talked about how PSYCHO II was a risky, unlikely sequel of ’83 that was so good it actually went over pretty well. There’s another one that did not go over well at all (though it made about $30 million more than PSYCHO II at the box office). Like RETURN OF THE JEDI, this one is a sequel to a huge hit and pop culture phenomenon from 1977.
How is it that there’s a sequel to SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, and it’s directed by Sylvester Stallone, but I didn’t see it until now? I was always curious, but I knew it wasn’t about disco, it looks like he’s doing aerobics on the cover, and I’d only ever heard it mentioned as a punchline, so it stayed low on my watch list until I decided to study the summer of ’83. Only after watching it did I read up on it and realize it was pretty much a universally hated movie. Wikipedia says it’s “the earliest film to hold a score of 0% on Rotten Tomatoes.” It has an average of 23 on Metacritic. World’s biggest SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER fan Gene Siskel called it “a typically weak sequel that has no legitimate artistic reason for being.” A 2006 Entertainment Weekly list called it the worst sequel of all time. I actually couldn’t find a positive review, and few that weren’t scathing, seething, disgusted.
But I’m not crazy, the world is crazy, when I tell you I genuinely enjoyed STAYING ALIVE. I’m not trying to be a show off here, I’m just coming to it with vastly different artistic values, I think. I’m not a circa-1983 critic determined to assassinate the exploiters of a sacred text of the ‘70s, or a Razzie voter avenging popular actors for being hunky, or a snarkster eager to snicker at The Worst Sequels of All Time!!! can you believe it!? How did this get made!? I come to it as a fan of Sylvester Stallone who discovered that holy shit, this is the missing link of his directorial work, not just the movie he did between ROCKY III and IV, but the stylistic bridge between them. It’s also very ROCKY-like in its content, with its ham and egger underdog chasing his dreams – a huge plus to me, but used as a criticism in every review I looked at – so it’s clearly very personal to the director.
I’m also coming to it as a guy who watched the two chapters of the Tony Manero saga pretty much back to back and not only enjoyed that they’re very different from each other, but that that they explore the idea of this character struggling, with moderate success, to not be quite as much of a piece of shit as he used to be. It’s funny to read the reviews complaining that he doesn’t fight with his family in this one, the same way they might complain if Spider-Man didn’t use his webs enough or something. They remembered that as the good part, they wanted more of that. But I think it’s also related to that thing I’ve written about before, how we grew up believing cynicism was always deeper than optimism, happy endings were selling out, etc. Tony’s dumbass friends would also be disappointed in him for apologizing to his mom. “Jesus, what are you doing? What, are you a fairy, Tony?”
Yes, the ugliness of the first film is essential to its greatness. This is another movie that does a totally different thing. Sorry, #NotMyManero nerds. I was proud of him for growing. I don’t relate to him much in the first one, but everybody can relate to wanting to stop fucking up as bad.
The Stallone-ness is immediately undeniable. The opening credits play over an ass-kicking ROCKY-III-esque musical montage as Tony auditions for a Broadway show. Kurtwood Smith plays a scowling choreographer – we never hear his voice, or see him again. Although the soundtrack has five new Bee Gees songs, the opening tune “Far from Over” sounds like something that would be in a ROCKY sequel… because it’s by Frank Stallone! And I didn’t have to look it up to know that it was written with synth maniac Vince DiCola (TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE). If you’ve listened to his score for ROCKY IV as many times as I have (particularly the training montage) you’ll recognize him too.
As the song is wrapping up Smith points to Tony, he leaves in disappointment, and the first diegetic sound we hear is the door slamming behind him. Now, in an echo of the iconic strut that opened SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, we get a dejected stroll down the sidewalk, with no music. But it’s still bouncy and cocky and he looks early’-80s-cool-as fuck with his leather jacket over v-neck undershirt.
He never mentions her, but he’s following the path of part 1’s Stephanie: moving from Brooklyn to Manhattan, trying to break into the entertainment industry however he can. He auditions as a background dancer for shows, is willing to act or model, gets rejected by every talent agency in a montage Stallone surely related to. He lives in a rathole called the Fulton Hotel, where he cleans his shirts in the shower and waits for callbacks on the lobby payphone. His day job is teaching classes at Fatima’s Danceland (“Ballet, Jazz, Tap, Disco” the sign says) where his girlfriend Jackie (Cynthia Rhodes, FLASHDANCE) also teaches.
When night comes around there’s a brilliant touch: a shot of a club. People dancing to a band. In the middle of the crowd is Tony in a white shirt and black vest, spinning around… and then the camera pulls back just enough to reveal that he’s carrying a plate of drinks, ‘cause he’s a server there. He still walks cocky, but the dance floor does not part for him anymore. Female customers talk to him kinda the way he used to talk to women. Two of them try to recruit him for a get-together but he says, “The last time I came over I almost got brain damage, you guys party too hard. You oughta be a tag team.” One of them says, “Guys like you, you aren’t relationships. You’re exercise.”
Jackie is really nice, works hard as a dancer without expecting fame, also has a regular club gig singing in a band with Frank Stallone and Richie Sambora (apparently filmed at CBGB, but doesn’t look like it). Tony is much sweeter with her than he was with anybody in the first movie, except he gets possessive of her around Frank Stallone’s character Carl (“that singer and you were harmonizin a little too well”) and he doesn’t always seem as invested in the relationship as she does. She thinks he’s jealous of her being in a show. But he goes to see the last performance of it and repeats exactly what he did to Annette: staring in awe at another dancer – the show’s star, Laura (Finola Hughes, THE APPLE) – and immediately pursuing her while brushing off Jackie’s questions about what he’s up to.
After the show, while Jackie gets changed, he follows Laura to her dressing room, bothers her for several minutes and asks her out. She disses him pretty effectively, but he tries to tell her about his new world view: “I amazingly respect your dancing talent, all right, and I respect your womanhood. I didn’t always respect womanhood but since I moved into Manhattan I got this— this new, mature outlook on life. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I don’t curse.”
She gets him to try out for a new show she’s in, watches his audition while dressed like an old timey adventurer, and flirts with him in the hallway afterwards. They go on the classic movie date (musical montage of walking and talking through the city and various parks, plus horse-drawn carriage ride) and end up in bed together at her place. After she kicks him out at 3 am but says she’ll see him again (she’s at least as good at sweet talking as he ever was) he excitedly calls Jackie from a pay phone and wakes her up. They both end up getting parts in the show.
Laura wears fur coats and rides everywhere in a limo. She dodges questions about her wealth but “everyone says she comes from money.” She gives Tony a taste of his own medicine, acting like he’s special to her, then ignoring him in favor of other men, including Jesse (Steve Inwood, NIGHT OF THE JUGGLER, FAME), the chainsmoking, bearded, sweater-wearing director of the show. Tony keeps falling for it and keeps standing up Jackie until she breaks up with him. She pulls a The Kid in PURPLE RAIN by performing a song that’s obviously about him in front of him. After seeing him successfully walk all over Annette in the first film, I was so proud of Jackie quietly, firmly telling him that she loves him but can’t let him treat her like this anymore.
A great sequel moment is when Tony is trying to figure out what to wear to a fancy rich person party and he gets out what appears to be the suit from the first movie.
I’m pretty sure they cheat it with some tailoring at the very least, but next we see him strutting up in what’s supposed to be the suit with the lapels flipped up and a light blue v-neck underneath to be fashionable for the era between AMERICAN GIGOLO and Miami Vice. And it looks good!
He’s still wearing this when Jackie dumps him and he walks across
the fateful a bridge, past 2001 Odyssey (now a strip club) and to his mom’s house. She appears to live alone, and seems happier. The next day he tries to make amends. “The way I used to act, the way I treated everybody, I was very hard on you, and I just, I just wanted to say it’s not me, all right? That wasn’t me.”
When she asks, “What, are you kidding me?” and “Apologizing for what? What are you saying, that wasn’t the real you back then?” it seems like she’s gonna go into a timeless critique of half-assed apologies. If you did it, that was the real you, Tony. But instead she tells him “This attitude you’re talkin about, that’s what got you outta this damn neighborhood. So don’t go apol— you don’t need to apologize, ‘cause you musta been doing somethin right.”
I think unfortunately Mom has rationalized being treated shitty by the men in her life as an important survival mechanism for the men. But Tony seems to get that. “So what you’re sayin is I’ve always been this bastard, but it’s all right, ‘cause it comes natural to me.” He’s serious, but they’re able to laugh about it.
It seems to me Tony has found this “real me” who yearns not to be “this bastard” by living in a new context where all the significant people in his life are women. In his youth he bounced between his asshole father and his entourage of homophobic gang rapists. I don’t think he has any male friends in Manhattan. He’s standoffish and competitive with Carl, Jesse, the other bartenders, the guy whose role he steals. I don’t think we ever see him talking to any of the other male dancers. But he has long talks with Jackie, Laura, his mom. He has a female boss, Fatima (Norma Donaldson, WILLIE DYNAMITE, 9 TO 5), who he seems to like more than she likes him, though she’s only in one scene.
Talking to his mom is a turning point that inspires his first try at a sincere apology to Jackie, saying, “Look, I know I treat you bad, and I know I got terrible manners, but the people I grew up with had terrible manners, after a while you gotta know that some of this rubs off on you.” But he’s instantly back to his old possessiveness, telling her Carl is a pervert because he plays rhythm guitar. She gets him good with the performatively sweet way she says good night to Carl. People say they laugh at this movie but I think Tony is genuinely a funny character, in the same way as before but now it’s easier to like him and laugh with him because he’s making an effort to not suck.
The sequel makes Tony Manero the thing that Stallone always was, but that Tony was too much of a bastard to be the first time around: the inarticulate lug with a passionate, artistic soul. He’s kinda dumb and has a corny sense of humor, he’s an unreformed flirt, but he made the choice to leave behind his status as royalty in Bay Ridge to live in a shitty flophouse, learn new things, and go after his dream. As the song said, his life was goin nowhere, and Jackie ends up being the somebody he’s pleading for help from. They make their relationship more real through dance, working together so he can learn the lead role, swoop in and steal it from the guy who already has it. Director Jesse goes for it because “What you have is anger, and a certain intensity, and that’s what I need to make the show work.” Getting that one in a million chance as a gimmick, like Rocky Balboa.
I think by the end of the movie Tony has become more sincere than full of shit, and I believe he really means it when he gives Jackie a better apology, though we could feel more sure about that if she didn’t reward him by inviting him to bed. But it’s her decision.
One of Tony’s shortcomings that is not addressed is all the bigotry he and the boys displayed back in the neighborhood. I really wondered what those dirtbags would think if they saw him doing this kind of dancing, with all these muscular men. I don’t think the movie needed to say anything directly, but with all the gay men in his chosen industry it would’ve been cool to see if he’s become comfortable around them. Never happens. And there’s one point where he refers to Carl as “that fruit musician.” But he says it in the context of accusing him of trying to steal Jackie. Baby steps, I guess.
I wondered if we’d see what happened to any of his friends, but the only returning characters are Tony and his mom. I read that they shot cameos for Frank Sr. and Annette, but they were cut. I got the impression Frank Sr. was dead, and that works. I would’ve liked to see Annette, but maybe that would’ve been too much of a reminder of Tony’s past sins.
To me the weakness of the movie is that following the ROCKY template in a dance context means the performance of the show (“Satan’s Alley” – opposite of PARADISE ALLEY?) takes up the last act, and it just doesn’t have the same amount of tension or suspense as a boxing match. It also seems like a cheesy and ridiculous show (Laura is some kind of devil lady tempting Tony, the others dance around like zombies in dry ice, later there’s a big S&M scene where they whip him). I don’t think I’d know what a good modern show looked like anyway, so I enjoy this excess, but I guess I can see how it was worthy of mockery at the time, and doesn’t stand up as a piece of entertainment on its own the way, say, MAGIC MIKE’S LAST DANCE might. But again, this is the way Stallone does his boxing matches – some story at the beginning and the end, but in the middle time passes through the power of impressionistic montage. I like the series of dissolves between different slo-mo shots of Tony and Laura leaping in the air.
I don’t think it’s supposed to be as funny as it is when he spins her around (spinning POV shot like in the first movie) and throws her across the stage so he can take an unauthorized solo. If I understand correctly he was supposed to be alone for his “ascent to Heaven” on a rising platform, but he convinces Laura to jump to him and then somehow lifts her above his head with one hand? I guess he gave it a new ending on the spot and shared the glory with her. I don’t know. But Jackie and Jesse are both into it. And his mom, in the audience.
That’s some Sylvester Stallone shit, and some of this stuff on stage foreshadows the pageantry of Drago’s entrance to fight Apollo Creed in ROCKY IV. Like Rocky, Tony ends it with blood dripping down his face (he kisses Laura during the show, so she pokes him in the eye). And it’s not the first one, where he just survives, it’s the sequels, where he wins. It’s a happier happier ending than the first film, because he makes the right decisions (turn down Laura, tell Jackie he couldn’t have done it without her), then he says “Know what I wanna do? Do you know what I wanna do? Strut,” and he kicks open the door and happily struts down the street to “Stayin’ Alive.” No paint bucket, and no Jackie, but still fun. Even Ebert said he liked that part. (the fan service)
Producer Robert Stigwood got the sequel ball rolling as soon as SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER was a hit, but Travolta didn’t like the script by Norman Wexler, later calling it “an anti-dance piece, very cynical.” Since Travolta didn’t budge for several years Stigwood and Wexler agreed to start over based on the actor’s ideas about Tony pursuing a role on Broadway. Then Travolta saw ROCKY III and told his agent “This is a wild idea, but if I could get the kind of energy and excitement and pacing that Stallone brought to ROCKY III, that’s where I think this movie is going.” Little did he know they would get Stallone himself to do it.
It’s interesting that John Badham took over directing SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER from ROCKY director John G. Avildsen, but Tony still had a ROCKY poster in his bedroom, and then Stallone became the director of the ROCKY sequels, which led to him directing the SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER sequel. Stallone has a cameo when Tony passes him on a crowded sidewalk, and they turn and look at each other. I’m gonna interpret that as Tony seeing his hero on the street but then telling himself nah, that can’t be him.
Travolta said that “Norman had written a more realistic ending, where Tony ends up in the chorus with a hope of someday getting something else,” but he asked Stallone to “put it in overdrive and send it into space.” Stallone – who ended up with a screenwriting credit alongside Wexler – also convinced Travolta to take out the cursing to make it PG like ROCKY. (Okay, I did think that was weird when he said he stopped cursing.)
I’ve read that Wexler was furious about Stallone’s changes; I could not find any specifics. Maybe calling it STAYING ALIVE instead of STAYIN’ ALIVE betrayed his famous street vernacular. I really do suspect Stallone rewrote the dialogue, because practically everything Tony says sounds like something Stallone would say. Can’t you imagine Rocky hearing a British accent and asking, “So, uh, exactly where are you imported from, the vicinity of England?” Or getting a door slammed in his face, turning to a random witness and saying, “Strong draft in there, huh?”
After Tony sleeps with Laura he marvels about her dancing, saying, “It’s like watchin smoke move or somethin… I don’t know, it’s like you really did somethin with your life. And I think you’re significant.” Who else would describe her with such lunkheaded artistry, then compliment her on her, uh… significance?
Not that Travolta ever seems to be doing a Rocky impression. He’s just speaking the Stallone dialogue, the way he’d later speak the Tarantino dialogue. Even setting aside the physical demands of the dancing he’s really good in this, and probly more handsome than anything else I’ve ever seen him in. He’s got a million dollar smile, and now Tony has something genuine to back it up with.
I don’t remember if I’ve seen buff Travolta before, and I figured that was Sly’s influence. Sure enough, a New York Times article published the week of the film’s release reported that “Under Mr. Stallone’s guidance, Mr. Travolta trained for almost five months, working six days a week and sometimes 14 or 16 hours a day. He lost almost 20 pounds, built up his chest, his arms and his legs in order to achieve a professional dancer’s body.” I think these days we call that dedication to a role. Back then they called it ego.
This movie is so Stallone! That was the complaint at the time, but it’s exactly what I hope for in A Sylvester Stallone Film. This is the only one Stallone ever directed without playing one of the main roles, and the only one besides PARADISE ALLEY that’s not in the Rocky, Rambo or Expendables series, yet it doesn’t feel like some unrelated for-hire gig. It’s pure Sly.
I think it’s a good looking movie. Some of the lighting reminded me of FLASHDANCE, so I was surprised that d.p. Nick McLean was the same guy who shot STROKER ACE. Production designer Robert F. Boyle is a legend, though – he did NORTH BY NORTHWEST, THE BIRDS, and MARNIE.
Maybe more significant players are choreographers Dennon & Sayhber Rawles (VOYAGE OF THE ROCK ALIENS) and editors Peter E. Berger (HOT POTATO), Mark Warner (ROCKY III, 48 HRS.) and Don Zimmerman (also ROCKY III, and he must’ve been Stallone’s favorite since he later did ROCKY IV, COBRA, and OVER THE TOP). I think this is where my biggest disagreement with those early ‘80s critics comes, and this also applies to FLASHDANCE, HIGHLANDER, ROCKY III and especially ROCKY IV. If you read contemporary reviews of any of those movies there’s a high probability you’ll see them dismissed as being too much like music videos. The conventional wisdom was that music videos were a lower artform, empty bullshit to rot the brains of your stupid teenagers, not worthy of the big screen. Instead of getting excited about a new style, they thought somebody was doing it wrong. That’s not what movies are supposed to be like! Keep it the old way! So they rejected anything they thought was slick in that MTV way, that had stylish lighting, propulsive momentum, quick edits to the beat of a modern soundtrack. Things that Stallone pushed really far in those movies, and did a great job at.
Ebert said STAYING ALIVE would probly be divided up into clips to show on MTV and called it “a Walkman for the eyes,” the reference to a current technology used by the youths meant to sting. People thought Stallone was dating the movies with these choices and making them instantly obsolete – in fact he was making them stand out from the movies of their time and from later movies that share the same influences but don’t generally do it as well or as with as much energy of the new. It’s amazing to me how many people will complain that this music and dance movie gets carried away with all the music and dance. But again, it wasn’t what they expected, since that’s not what the first movie was.
I’m certainly not gonna convince anybody that this is a great movie, or that it fulfilled their needs for a SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER sequel, if there was ever any chance of being open to such a thing. But the controversial point that I must stand firmly behind is that this is a legitimate movie on its own merits. Its mix of earnest cheesiness (some of the songs, Satan’s Alley) and technical excellence (the acting, the work of the dancers, and especially the editing of musical montages), plus its heart-on-its-sleeve passion for this macho dipshit trying to treat women better and make a living with his art, are essential to what I love about Stallone, and a natural fit with where Travolta wanted to take his signature character as disco faded in memory and his thirties were approaching.
It’s all right, it’s okay, and you may look the other way, but fuck it, man: I love STAYING ALIVE.
Signs o’ the times: An E.T. marquee during the strutting scene.
Where are they later: Second unit director Thomas J. Wright went on to first unit direct Hulk Hogan in NO HOLDS BARRED.
p.s. There are reports that a dancer in white suspenders glimpsed in some shots of the Satan’s Alley rehearsal montage is the great Patrick Swayze. I tried pausing and it looks like it could be him at times, other times it really doesn’t look like him. Here’s one of the more like him frames:
It’s not listed on his IMDb, and he would’ve been busy around this time, since THE OUTSIDERS, the TV movie and six-episode series The Renegades, and UNCOMMON VALOR all came out in 1983. Would he really be able to fit in an intensive but uncredited bit part at this stage in his career? It’s possible, but I’m not as convinced as other people that it’s him.
p.p.s. Seeing STAYING ALIVE made me wish it had gone over better so there could be a part 3. I thought about it for a while and I decided this is the part 3 I wish existed: Travolta uses his newfound PULP FICTION clout to set up YOU SHOULD BE DANCING, released in 1995. It’s a one crazy night movie where Tony goes back to Brooklyn to attend his 20th high school reunion, visiting all surviving characters. Then he convinces them all to come into the city with him to go to an underground rave. Stylistically in league with ‘90s indie movement, awkwardly script doctored by Tarantino, soundtrack by Chemical Brothers.