Staying Alive (1983)

Saturday Night Fever producer and writer Robert Stigwood and Norman Wexler dreamed of a sequel to the film pretty much since the original was released. What they came up with, Staying Alive, was a script that John Travolta disliked. It was too much of a downer and he couldn’t be convinced to do the film for several years.

Finally, after four years of this, Travolta and Stigwood met. The star had an idea. What if Tony Manero became a dancer on Broadway? And what if he was a big star? Wexler thought that it would be better if Manero ended up in the chorus and the two reached an agreement to start the film.

Travolta had just seen Rocky III and wanted the same energy for Staying Alive. Paramount got Sylvester Stallone on board, Travolta told him his idea of the happy ending and toned down the rawness of the original film.

What emerged was…well, whatever this movie is.

Tony Manero was once the king of 2001 Odyssey, ruling the disco dance floor. Now, he lives in poverty and works on his dream of being in a modern dance musical. When he isn’t teaching or dancing, he’s a waiter that’s constantly beset upon by beautiful women. Ah, the sad life of Tony Manero — constantly getting laid and dancing his heart out.

Our hero has changed — moving away from Brooklyn has matured him somewhat and toned down the levels of profanity he used to freely toss around. But he’s still horrible to women, particularly his dancer and rock singer girlfriend Jackie (Cynthia Rhodes, Tina Tech from Flashdance and Penny from Dirty Dancing; she’s also in Xanadu, but let’s cut her some slack). He can go after anyone, but she has to be his alone. Speaking of guys that surround Jackie, Richie Sambora and Frank Stallone play in her band.

Tony’s really into Laura (Finola Hughes, who was nominated for both the Worst New Star and Worst Supporting Actress Razzies for her role in this film; she’s also in The Apple, pretty much damning her soul to bad dance movie hell for all eternity). He pursues her right into a one night stand and can’t understand why that’s all it ends up being. She replies, “Everyone uses everybody.”

Jackie and Tony break up just in time for the two of them — and Laura — to try out for the biggest dance musical to ever hit Broadway — Satan’s Alley. They get small parts and our villain gets the lead. Look for Patrick Swayze as one of the other backup dancers.

This leads Tony into his very own walkabout spirit quest, where he takes the 16 mile walk from Manhattan to Bay Ridge. The 2001 Odyssey is now Spectrum, a gay club, and this makes him realize how much his life has changed. He apologizes to his mother for how he was. She tells him that being so selfish is how he escaped a dead-end life. Of note, Donna Pescow was to return in the audience of Tony’s Broadway show and Tony’s father (Val Bisoglio) filmed scenes that were deleted. Now, the film implies that he is dead.

Tony and Jackie get back together, with her helping him work hard and take over the vacant lead male role. While he and Laura openly hate one another, they have as much chemistry dancing vertically as they once did horizontally. Tony takes things too far on the sold out opening night and kisses her at the end of the first act; she responds by slashing at his face.

Backstage, the director flips out on Tony and Laura tries to lure him back into bed. The second act is everything of the 1980’s — fog, lasers, glitter, silver lame and probably metric tons of white flake. Our hero throws away Laura at the end and goes wild with his very own solo dance before she jumps back into his arms to a standing ovation. He reunites for good with Jackie and celebrates as only he can — by recreating the strut from the beginning of Saturday Night Fever.

Despite being a critical failure — that’s putting it mildly —  Staying Alive was a commercial success. The film opened with the biggest weekend for a musical film ever with a gross of $12 million dollars, finally earning $127 million on a $22 million budget.

I have my own theory on this film: it’s a Jacob’s Ladder situation.

Some time after Saturday Night Fever, Tony died. As dance was the most important thing in his life, his limbo — the time between heaven and hell — is spent trying to get a role as a dancer. The play Satan’s Alley is quite literally the place he could go to, if he makes the wrong choice. His apartment building is filled with other dead people; his life of constant temptation is the devil trying to convince him to follow him and give up on purity, just as Satan once led his brother Frank Jr. to renounce the priesthood.

Tony’s walk back to his hometown is literally a journey to the land of the dead — his mother is the one who has passed on and that’s why she can now forgive him. 2001 Odyssey, once a place full of life, has now become Tony’s worst fear, a loss of his masculinity. The place where his racist, gay bashing friends once called home has become their hell.

When Tony dances on to the Broadway stage, he must choose — heaven or hell. Or, as he does, making one’s own choice. He tosses Laura — the scarlet woman, the temptress — down to joyously dance and realize his full potential. He offers a hand in forgiveness to her before realizing his one true love — no, not Jackie. Himself. He struts down the street and on his way to heaven, which is embodied in the alpha and omega of Saturday Night Live and Staying Alive as that strut, down the street, to the Bee Gees.

Sometimes, a movie is so bad that you have to invent your own mythology to get through it. This, obviously, would be one of those films. Just don’t ask me to explain that Stallone cameo in the beginning.

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