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Summer of ‘83: Staying Alive

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Summer of ‘83: <em>Staying Alive</em>

Staying Alive, the curiously delayed and universally derided sequel to 1977’s Saturday Night Fever, isn’t as bad as you’ve probably heard—which is unfortunate, because it’s not bad enough. Everyone is overacting strenuously in an attempt to lend the script a degree of credibility, but these heroic attempts go for naught, not because the writing is crap (although it is), but because there’s just no reason to have told this story to begin with. We didn’t wonder what ever became of Tony Manero because we already knew: nothing much. It’s the central point of Saturday Night Fever, the desperate semi-conscious struggle of Tony and his friends to achieve some relevance or importance, to become something besides what they see as their destinies.

A sequel that makes dance Tony’s career instead of his escape doesn’t lessen the impact of the first film; it just means the sequel won’t have much impact of its own. Sure enough, Staying Alive is inconsequential as anything but a fashion time capsule, or an object lesson on what happens when a good actress is given a role so schizophrenically written that she’s reduced to phonetic-sounding renditions of her lines. It’s a bad movie, but not bad enough to watch and laugh at. It’s boring bad—as Sarah D. Bunting and Joe Reid discovered when they tried to live-blog it. Their suffering is transcribed below.

SARAH D. BUNTING: So, you’ve never seen Staying Alive before.

JOE REID: No, I never have. And up until today, I never thought I would. ... Holy headband, it’s John Travolta!

SB: How much do you remember of Saturday Night Fever?

JR: I remember there being a Tony Manero. Who didn’t like his hair mussed.

[in the opening montage, Tony auditions, in vain, for a Broadway dance show]

SB: The dad from That 70s Show is a dance coach? That explains kind of a lot.

JR: They were experimenting with anti-typecasting.

SB: This was done so much better in All That Jazz, this extended “look at the tough lives of dancers in gritty, grimy NYC” sequence.

JR: I guess Xanadu didn’t teach anyone the dangers of the fluorescent tube font.

SB: God forgive me, but Travolta looks good. Cheesy, but good.

JR: You know, Kurtwood Smith, the smoking can’t be good for the dancers’ cardio.

SB: “Finale costumes designed by Bob Mackie.” Oh, dear Lord. ...When did dancing stop being super-cool in the culture?

JR: Here. This movie.

SB: If anything were going to kill it, you’d think it would be this hot mess, but it didn’t; it seems like in the ’80s, so many movies were about dancing. Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, the Breakin’s, Flashdance... everyone wearing the leg warmers and headbands whether they danced or not.

JR: It’s coming back, I feel. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve become a bigger gaywad and now appreciate it.

SB: Travolta looks really good with eyeliner. Jesus, what’s happening to me.

JR: Travolta’s got that type of overly-muscled hot that you know came from six months of gym and nothing but the gym, and it’s gone by the time the movie premieres.

SB: And we’re so used to him being fat now.

JR: Okay, leather jacket, wifebeater, feathered mullet, AND gold cross necklace? That’s a lotta look.

SB: My people. Jersey guys were working that style until like ’93. Or, in some cases, just last week. ... Aw, Cynthia Rhodes. She should have gotten more famous.

JR: Meanwhile, the Lady Chablis apparently got cast in the Debbie Allen role.

[Tony, in a pissy mood, is leading a dance class]

SB: “Molly, watch your line.” We’re too busy watching your line, Captain Bulgy.

JR: Wow, that anorexic girl looks…authentic.

[Tony is now in the shower, forlornly laundering his clothes at the same time]

JR: ...Yeah, okay. I’ll give you Trav-hot-ta. God help me.

SB: He’s got it tough! Six years after he wins the big contest and he’s not working!

[Tony is out at a club, engaging in Sylvester Stallone’s stilted idea of heterosexual social intercourse c. 1983]

JR: Tony’s hairdo has just been shamed.

SB: “Guys like you aren’t relationships; you’re exercise.” How long do you suppose Stallone saved that one for recycling?

[Stallone’s stylin’ street cameo]

JR: Jeez, Sly, nice bear you’re wearing. You slay that yourself?

SB: What happened to Travolta’s Brooklyn accent? I can see how the character’s accent would have gotten weaker after six years in Manhattan, but this isn’t weaker, it’s just worse.

JR: Okay, clearly Johnny T lost a bunch of weight in the ramp-up to this movie. His features look insanely too big for his face.

SB: I know. The Andy Pettitte resemblance is really marked here.

JR: So I’m guess this was NOT the golden age of Broadway. ... Heeeere’s Toothy!

SB: I don’t know what city this is where people pack these 500-seat houses to see modern-dance spectaculars that last five minutes, but it isn’t New York.

[enter our villainess, Laura, played by Finola “Anna Devane” Hughes]

JR: Heeeere’s Toothy!

SB: Finola! ... I have never understood what’s supposed to be so hot about her dancing. She has really long hair and she’s liftable. What else you got, Fang? Because you’re not making Solid Gold’s reserve unit with that weak sauce. And is this a Holiday-Inn-lounge open mic? This saxophone is fucking unbearable.

JR: It’s all castoff music from some teen sports movie. Like, this is the montage where Andrew McCarthy learns how to ski. How you go from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack to this—it’s criminal.

SB: Seriously, there are a thousand people in the audience. I am so sure.

JR: Not only a packed house, but an upscale one from the looks of it. As if. This is not get-out-the-tuxedo material.

SB: Finola’s crimping iron got a workout.

JR: It was nominated for both a Golden Globe and a Razzie that year. She looks like what the princess from The Neverending Story grew up to be after she moves to New York to become an actress and instead became… this.

[Tony is hitting on Laura, at length, even though she’s clearly not having it—although that could just be Finola Hughes’s delivery, which has all the enthusiasm of a third-grade pageant about the founding fathers]

SB: This is painful. She’s not interested, Manero.

JR: Yeah, if the whole plot hinges on Tony being mesmerized by this exotic dancing beauty… fail.

SB: “I respect your womanhood”? Is that what he just said?

JR: Her womanhood is almost visible in that get-up.

SB: No “almost,” my friend. And what’s with the acting like Brooklyn is Mayberry?

JR: Because he’s currently got all the game of Barney Fife? Man, this is what happens when there’s no Bee Gees to strut to.

[not to spoil the “plot” for you, but a large portion of it involves Tony jerking Jackie (Cynthia Rhodes) around while getting jerked around by Laura, which is what’s going on this scene… and 78 percent of the other scenes]

SB: This relationship with Jackie is so weird. I think they’re friends with benefits, and I think she knows that, but she could really do better than him. ... “I don’t even know huhhh!” Argh, the accent. This is like when your parents try to use hip lingo; it’s close, and yet it’s so wrong.

JR: Travolta really did work hard at perfecting a caricature, didn’t he? It’s like he’s doing an impression of himself.

SB: Jackie’s hair has grown three inches since the last scene.

JR: ... Holy codpiece. That thing just poked my eye out.

SB: All the choreography in this movie consists of three or four moves. That leap with one knee bent and the arms up, that elbow… thing, that side-to-side… thing, now and then there’s a head-roll.

JR: Judicious editing is doing much of the work here.

SB: And Travolta’s double is doing the rest.

JR: I think if I ever went to a dance audition and it wasn’t this exact kind of darkened, smoky auditorium, I would die of disappointment.

[now Laura is hitting on Tony, for reasons that defy understanding]

SB: And where are they now—the Dance Underground?

JR: It does look tunnel-like.

SB: The Dance Garage? Is Jack Bauer going to show up in the next scene? Can we expect a rumble?

JR: They kind of deserve each other, these two. That’s probably not what you should be thinking of a movie’s central pair.

SB: Ohhhhh God. The montage. And I see Barry Gibb got hold of a telephone, because here are the Bee Gees.

JR: Oh, iconic Central Park.

SB: Now featuring Finola’s leather-pants camel toe.

JR: Ew, yes. Camel toe shouldn’t be a foot tall, and yet?

SB: This is the getting-to-know-you/falling-in-love montage, of… a single afternoon. ... Oh, of COURSE they’re going for a carriage ride.

JR: It kind of kills the romance of a horse-drawn carriage ride when you know how much it smells like horse poo.

[nothing says “romance” like lying in bed with a lady, talking about how much you respect her dancing

SB: “What is all this—are you rich or somethin’?” It’s a Manhattan apartment the size of a barn, Tony. Pay attention.

JR: I don’t know much in this regard, but I know Tony Manero respecting a woman for anything is a sign that something is amiss.

SB: There are so many big, shiny teeth in this scene. Imagine seeing this in the theater. Terrifying.


SB: They really have zero chemistry.

[when Laura kicks Tony out so she can get her beauty sleep, he goes to a pay phone to call Jackie]

JR: Way to update your fuck-buddy that you just nailed her co-star, dick.

SB: At 3 AM no less. Nice manners.

JR: So when this movie came out, did it kind of force everybody to admit that Tony Manero was always kind of queer?

SB: And kind of short?

JR: Is that the same mother from Fame? You know the one I mean?

SB: ... Seriously, Brooklyn is not that square, and back then it cost a dollar to get there. Why is the dialogue making it out like it’s Amish country? And now Jackie’s hair is even longer and it’s two days later. And she’s in a wedding band. With Frank Stallone.

JR: Yeah, I think she’s secretly triplets and Tony’s just too dumb to realize. Oh God, that is Frank Stallone.

SB: This song belongs in a commercial for allergy medicine.

JR: Why is Frank giving Travolta the eye?

SB: Because Frank wants to take it to the hoop with Jackie. Or… with Travolta.

JR: I’m saying. I have to figure Hall & Oates were pissed they never got this gig.

SB: Now that they’ve mentioned ten times what time they’re meeting up later, do you suppose Tony’s going to stand her up?

JR: Okay, I don’t care how many people showed up to Laura’s crappy revue, she’s got all this money because she’s a shipping heiress, right?

SB: Or a black widow. Did you know she had exactly the same role in that ski movie with Peter Berg? Shit, what was the name of that thing… Alpine Extreme, something like that?

JR: Aspen Extreme. Why do I know that?! And why is the dude in the beard wearing Sheena Easton’s leather trench coat?

SB: The big dance show is called “Satan’s Alley”? That’s got to be a euphemism for something.

JR: The pitch meeting?

SB: The casting couch?

[Laura freaks out on Tony… and kind of on Jackie]

JR: Bipolar much, lady?

SB: Damn. This is egregious overacting. And I have seen her work on General Hospital; I do not say that lightly.

JR: And nonsensical characterizations. I don’t buy her for one second.

SB: WHAT IS THAT THING? He’s wearing an Escher painting.

JR: Jackie’s hair’s short again, yet Tony’s has doubled in size. This is more fascinating than the plot.

SB: There’s a plot? And you weren’t kidding with the bipolar. Where is this coming from? Fuck that aggro, Jackie. Get with Frank Stallone.

JR: So, time out: which one are we supposed to sympathize with? The sweet, mousy, always-there-for-him girl next door, or the crimped nightmare of a bipolar foreigner?

SB: This running “gag” with the messages is almost as bad as the Bee Gees music. Okay, Tony has no winter clothes—just the infamous white suit? Which, by the way, would not have stayed that white after six years in New York. He would know it GETS COLD IN DECEMBER, he’s FROM HERE! Where does this movie think Brooklyn is—Florida?

JR: Do you figure every time Finola Hughes gets cast in anything anymore, Emma Samms calls up her agent and bitches him out?

SB: I know who I’m going to bitch out: whoever authorized the Casio product placement.

JR: For real.

SB: And the Gibson Girl product placement.

[the soundtrack, as it does in nearly every scene, is once again describing exactly what we see on the screen with no metaphorical screen whatsoever]

SB: I’m not sure, but I think Laura is a moody giiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiirl!

JR: She looks like a prairie wife now. The hair is the real story here.

SB: These line readings are just really so odd. She’s saying the lines like she’s a hostage. Which technically I guess she is.

JR: If I didn’t know she really talks like this, I’d swear she was being overdubbed like Andie MacDowell in that one movie.

SB: Or that she got coached by Andie MacDowell. “Oh is it raining I hadn’t noticed.”

JR: Oh my god Jackie’s WAIST! If that belt were cinched any tighter, she wouldn’t be able to swallow.

SB: Must every song narrate the action for us? This isn’t exactly the most obscure plotting in history. “I’m sad because youuuuuu / Don’t love me like I doooooo”—OKAY, GOD.

JR: I’m paying attention to the feathered bangs, which are telling a story of their own. And that story is “Holy Shit, She Looks Old Now.”

SB: Oy, Jackie. “I can’t be second choice.” No, you’re usually fourth or fifth choice based on the tomcatting we’ve seen.

JR: Oh, Ye Olde Sad Walk Home To Brooklyn.

SB: He’s walking home? He grew up in Bay Ridge! It’s eight miles!

JR: Seriously. Better stretch those calves, Dancer Boy.

SB: Barry Gibb sounds like he has Epstein Barr.

JR: And buy a scarf, idiot. It’s DECEMBER.

SB: Cute house. It’s probably a million dollars now. Look at Julie Bovasso, totally bracing for the coming-out conversation. “Tony, why did you come here today?” “The closet was getting crowded, all those coats and whatnot.”

JR: This movie is hard to talk about if you aren’t watching it at the time, because the hilarity is all visual; other than that, it’s just kind of dull. But I do kind of have to respect that Tony’s story is unrepentantly the story of a dickwad who makes good. ... The variety of leather jackets in this movie is truly inspiring as well.

SB: I kind of want one of those “We Are The Robots” jackets for next winter, myself. But yeah: the first movie wasn’t about the dancing; it was about the hopelessness, the narrowness of their lives. This one, Stallone is just using the Rocky formula for a dance movie, and it has nothing to do with the first one except that it has Tony in it.

JR: Why are Tony’s shoulders so veiny?

SB: Why is Tony’s personality so hypocritical? You take a tumble with Laura, have slept with half the women in that nightclub—or so it was implied—and now Jackie’s not allowed to have a date with Frank Stallone?

JR: How does that fuzzy purple beret stay on Jackie’s head?

SB: Static electricity? ... “I think you’re a little jealous”? What tipped you off, Jackie—the stalkerish questioning? The angry tone? The arm-grabbing? When he peed on Frank’s leg?

JR: Slo-mo dance montage! Ohhhh, I just saw Cynthia Rhodes’s cervix. And she’s singing over it!

SB: It’s the same lift and leap over and over. Who choreographed this, William Hung?

JR: I don’t understand the purpose of the giant triangle bottoms to prevent camel toe when the outline of her breasts is perfectly visible up top.

SB: And he’s got a moose knuckle the size of a cabbage anyway, which looks quite painful and is certainly not appropriate for the Dr. Pepper commercial they’re apparently rehearsing for.

JR: I also think she’s smuggling migrant workers under that poncho.

SB: All of whom are named Richard Simmons.

JR: Hiyo!

[the soundtrack introduces the accompaniment to the climactic dance number, which consists of building Casio chords and a guy who needs a LOT more fiber in his diet moaning the words “dance” and “fire” many many times]

SB: Ah, yes: The Memorial Donna Martin Unearned Praise From A Tertiary Character.

JR: God, he’s admitting he treated her like shit? Wimp.

SB: Also, spiders are about to eat her eyeballs. Still, I’d take Travolta over Li’l Stallone any day. ... FIYAH! DANCE! ... Dance, Joe. Fire.

JR: Okay, now Finola is actively in a relationship with her crimper.

SB: Another excellent leather jacket on the director. He knows he’s not in Flash Gordon, right?

JR: I’m not sure he’s not Kenny Loggins

SB: I’m not either.

[it’s now time for the lead male dancer in the company to get all cranky with the director, thus clearing the way for Tony’s big Wow, He’s Good moment]

JR: Blondie is doing the Gay Classical Theatre Company proud.

SB: Not to mention the boys down at Monotone Union Local 435.

JR: Tony danced with her for like 45 seconds, missed one move he’s barely rehearsed anyway, and now there’s a huge fight with the director over Tony’s neuroses? That choreographer is not the motivational speaker he thinks he is.

SB: Her head got stuck in his crotch; someone’s to blame. DANCE!

JR: He should really get an award for that. FIYAH!

SB: I cannot wait to see the credit on this song. It is a parody of itself.

JR: I like how the lyrics are now explaining the relationship of DANCE to FIRE. And how this song was clearly the inspiration for that song in Wet Hot American Summer.

SB: Why is Finola the star of this dance dance revolution when everyone else in the company can do a flip and she can’t?

JR: Duh, she’s from BRITAIN. Where they buy and sell chorus girls.

[the (dance) show must go on… but not for long]

SB: Okay, so. “Satan’s Alley.” At the Broadway Theatre, which is huge. Check out the satanic thongs on the chorus dudes. This is like a Village People tribute tour. Nice dystopian-fantasy wristbands, Cynthia!

JR: Tony stretching his legs on the bathroom sink has the added effect of dipping his balls in the sink.

SB: Way to make me barf, Joe!

JR: Ha! I win!

SB: “Standing room only, guys.” Right. Except that everyone’s standing so that they can leave more easily. And Tony descends to the stage on a… stripper cage/meat hook, accompanied by orgiastic Casio.

JR: Oh, industrio-Christian imagery. You scamp, you.

SB: Barry Pepper used this same blocking in Battlefield Earth.

JR: So the plot of this show is that the FIYAH burned all their clothes off, so they now must DANCE? This is totally the main stage attraction at Sigfried and Roy, yes?

SB: Do you really need dance training to 1) claw at Tony through a set of bars, or 2) writhe around on the floor like you have a charley horse? ... Where do they dance, Joe? I’m confused.

JR: CLOSE TO THE FIRE! HIGHER AND HIGHER! They stole the set from the alley behind Cats, right?

SB: When they all pop up from the dry ice, it’s a cool effect, but how long were they breathing that? ... Wait, the show’s over already? That was five minutes!

JR: Just in time for Finola to scratch Tony’s eye out. For kissing her.

SB: Dump him, Jackie! Do it now! Oh, the show’s not over after all. “Phew.”

JR: Wow, way to kiss your piece on the side with English Tooth Lady still on your breath.

SB: Man, they’re actually using a strobe. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Limelight!

JR: The Vaseline budget for this movie bankrupted Paramount for three years. ... Jesus, can I go three minutes without seeing someone’s genitals? Maybe?

SB: Oh good, slo-mo—so we can see even more clearly that it’s the same four unchallenging-for-actors-with-no-dance-training moves over and over. And now there’s… Vangelis. Is this Vangelis?

JR: The Casio’s gotta be jealous it got left out of the Leaping Montage.

SB: So now the show’s over. Seven minutes total. They better not have charged full freight for those tickets.

JR: Seven minutes, plus this cat-suit thing.

SB: And Jackie’s GYN exam, which is evidently free with qualified purchase.

JR: Okay, this is now just a fight scene from the Adam West Batman series, yes? ... Oh! I get it now! This is an interpretive, theatrical telling of the Xenu story! “Xenu Unbound”!

SB: “Xenu Agonistes”!

JR: “Saturday Night Xenu”!

SB: I know the S&M overtones are on purpose, but this is like a WWE Undertaker fight.

JR: Tony has his revenge, THROUGH DANCE.

SB: That wasn’t dance, that was straight flinging Laura into the dry ice clouds offstage. He is so fired for this shit. The Sea Org will not be happy. ... Wait, why is it a big deal for her to jump onto this—platform thing? By her faith in Tony, she is redeemed?

JR: And at the end of the show, they all blast off to Transexual Transylvania. Jesus Christ, KISSING LESSONS, dance boy.

[after his awesome solo, Tony heads out into Times Square to “strut,” accompanied by some ’70s Bee Gees—then is ghost-faded out of the shot at the end, which semi-implies that he… died? I neither know nor care to learn]

SB: This is such a sad callback, using the “Staying Alive” song again.

JR: “Remember? The movie you liked?”

SB: A ten-minute dance show. A standing ovation. A ghost fade in Times Square. It is baffling.

SB and JR, in unison: SNUFFY WALDEN ON GUITAR??!

JR: Final verdict: not even good camp value, beyond the obvious costumes.

SB: Yep—still a disappointing, pointless mess. I can understand why Stallone would write it like Manero is the dance version of Balboa—they’re both basically decent, clueless Italian guys who are only good at one thing.

JR: Who keep doing that thing even though The World Is Against Them.

SB: Exactly. So their courage and decency allows them to prevail.

JR: It’s not that I don’t like that formula, but it doesn’t work.

SB: Oh, I’ve seen Rocky IV like twenty times. But Finola Hughes is no Drago.

JR: And on that note…

Sarah D. Bunting is the editor and publisher of Tomato Nation.

Joe Reid captains the ship at Low Resolution.

Bunting, Reid, and John Ramos of 7A Productions recently teamed up for the “12 Days Of Summer Movies” feature on Tomato Nation.