blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Staying Alive (1983, Sylvester Stallone)

As Staying Alive celebrates its fortieth birthday, I’m sure there’s information on the web to answer some of my most burning questions. For instance, did they shoot John Travolta and Finola Hughes singing numbers for the in-movie Broadway show (Satan’s Alley), or was it always a rock ballet? And what about the Frank Stallone songs—did director, co-writer, co-producer, and very special guest star Sylvester Stallone always plan on using his brother’s bland early eighties soft rock, which saps the energy out of all their scenes, which are many—or at some point was better music on the table? The film’s got five Bee Gees songs (plus the title track; trivia note: Stayin’ Alive was abridged on the soundtrack album, not in the movie itself). Were the Brothers Gibb too busy, or did they just not want to continue the story of Saturday Night Fever lead John Travolta?

So many questions.

Staying Alive runs a somewhat long ninety-six minutes. Once the Broadway show rehearsals start, it’s too rushed, but until it gets there, it plods. It still plods during the rehearsals—Travolta has to listen to an entire song to understand he’s hurt love interest Cynthia Rhodes by eighties stalking Hughes—and then there’s an endless “romantic” dance sequence. But there’s theoretically potential during the rehearsals; they’re what Alive promised during the opening titles, a bargain basement All That Jazz. Except Stallone can’t direct the dancing scenes.

Or, more, he can direct them, but then he slows them down, which makes the dancing far less impressive. Unless the whole point is Travolta’s athletic exertion faces, which the film inadvertently showcases for most of the third act. The rehearsals ought to be a no-brainer—Travolta, Hughes, and Rhodes are preparing for a show while in a love triangle. There’s plenty of drama, but they also have to work together for the show to work. Maybe it’d work if show director Steve Inwood weren’t so wooden (despite wearing outfits too extreme for a “Thriller” knock-off video). The scenes where Inwood and Travolta “act” opposite one another are some of the film’s worst, which is saying something, because even though Inwood’s bad… he’s only got a half-dozen scenes where he talks. Hughes is just as bad but in the movie, so much more often.

She’s the rich girl rock ballet star who practices free love, something Travolta just can’t understand, though he definitely should be while he’s sleeping with lovestruck co-worker Rhodes; he’s also going home with various girls from his bar job. Travolta and Rhodes work at a dance studio by day, then he waiters at a club while she sings at another. He doesn’t like her working at the club because it’s skeezy, only once we see it… it’s fine? Like, if he knew about her lovestruck coworker at the club—Frank Stallone—he might have a reason to dislike it, but we see him see Frank for the first time. And he can’t be worried about it being dangerous. Despite it being 1983 and prime “dirty old New York,” the city’s incredibly safe. He’s going to let Rhodes walk at least forty blocks home at one point.

Alive also could be about two dancers—Travolta and Rhodes—and their troubled personal relationship but their success in their field of chosen professional pursuit. She’s a little older, which sort of makes her a stand-in for the Karen Lynn Gorney character from the first movie. Except it’s not because Stallone and co-writer Norman Wexler are astoundingly bad at the romance stuff. They’re slightly better with Travolta’s character development arc, which involves realizing he shouldn’t mistreat people (especially women), only for mom Julie Bovasso to tell him it’s okay, actually. It’s what makes him so awesome.

Bovasso is the only other actor to return from Fever. No one else gets mentioned except the dad character, who seems to have died between movies, and Travolta has left mom Bovasso alone in Brooklyn while pursuing his Broadway dreams.

Bovasso’s scenes all feel inserted later, raising even more production questions, especially about Travolta’s possible original character arc. Maybe he sings about it. The scenes’ tacked-on feeling goes so far as to forget the movie is taking place at Christmastime. Maybe. Definitely winter because Travolta never wears enough clothes (but neither does anyone else).

The eventual musical has to be seen to be believed, and if Stallone weren’t so bad at directing it, it would be a camp classic; it should be a camp classic.

Based on the opening titles, which feel like an All That Jazz rip-off (sorry, not calling it a homage, given it’s set to a Frank Stallone song), it seems like at least the editing’s going to be good throughout. Mark Warner, Don Zimmerman, and Peter E. Berger do okay with the editing, even after Stallone starts all the slow motion. The cinematography from Nick McLean is occasionally (and unintentionally) great. Stallone’s got some bad shots and a real lack of visual continuity, but McLean does a fine job with dirty old New York. He lights about a third of Travolta’s approximately 75,000 close-ups okay. The other two-thirds, he’s bored too.

Johnny Mandel does the “score,” which doesn’t even get mentioned in the opening titles, and produces at least one of the Frank Stallone songs. Is it one of the better ones? I don’t know; I was too busy dancing to Stayin’ Alive to pay attention during the end credits.

Acting-wise, Bovasso wins on the technicality she’s in three and a half scenes. Rhodes is likable, even if she weren’t so tragically sympathetic as she lets herself get played, over and over, by Travolta.

Travolta’s reasonably bad. He seems better during the Broadway rehearsal portion of the plot; shame it’s rushed.

Hughes is terrible. Also, Stallone’s really bad at shooting her dance, so when Travolta’s ostensibly impressed with her craft (in addition to her looks), it doesn’t seem legit. Though at least Hughes gets to dance. The movie forgets Rhodes wants something more than the chorus line too.

If it weren’t terrible, Staying Alive could be good. Given the setting’s inherent drama and potential visuals, it ought to be good. Shame Stallone turned it into a weird vanity project for his brother, and an even weirder “toxic masculinity is good, actually” commentary. Because the questions the film raises about Travolta being a Brooklyn disco king grown over are good ones, it’s just Stallone, Wexler, and Alive have bullshit answers to all of them.

Still, it’s ninety-six minutes of early eighties Hollywood ego train wreck; after all, sometimes you need to strut.

8 responses to “Staying Alive (1983, Sylvester Stallone)”

  1. mercurie80

    Maybe it’s just me, but the Eighties seemed to be the era for Hollywood ego trips. I have to think this one could be interesting to watch (interesting, but probably not entertaining…) simply because of the names involved: Sylvester Stallone and John Travolta. I have always been fascinated how otherwise talented individuals can create a bad movie.

  2. It’s a huge challenge to make a movie about the making of a fictional big show — if the music and the dancing aren’t up to snuff, and the audience is thinking, “if that was a real musical I wouldn’t go see it,” then you’re cooked. All you’ve got left is the camp value. Still, at least one critic counts it among the top 100 “Most Enjoyable Bad Movies Ever.”

  3. I tried to watch this one, but just couldn’t connect with it.

    I laughed out loud at your summation: “If it weren’t terrible, Staying Alive could be good.”

  4. Speaking of questions…

    How the hell did Frank Stallone have a career? Sly couldn’t have had that much pull in Hollywood yet. Who did they have incriminating photos of?

    1. Whatever pull Sly had must’ve fizzled because he ditched Frank after Rocky IV I think

  5. Argh, I still have the Bee Gees song in my head, not that there’s anything wrong with that. I wish I could say Travolta made the movie worth it, but it looks like even he couldn’t save it. Thanks again for joining the blogathon, Andrew! 🙂

  6. I just tried to post a comment but I can’t tell if it worked or not, so in case it didn’t thanks again for joining the blogathon, Andrew! I might have to look for this one even if it isn’t that good. 🙂

  7. Michael

    Well, I learned something anyway. I had no idea Sylvester Stallone was involved in this, let alone heavily involved. I have to wonder how the careers of him and Travolta managed to survive some of the dreck they were involved in. This sounds like a painful one. I’m not sure if it classifies as so-bad-it’s-good or just so-bad-it’s-really-really-bad. Thanks for taking the bullet, Andrew. An entertaining review for what sounds like an unentertaining film.

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