No. 8: Staying Alive

Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

The power of the sequel was evident to the major studios in 1983, with eight (by my count) sequels finishing in the top 25 at the box office that year. All of those eight are unqualified financial successes though most of them were critical failures, so much so that some of them (like Superman III and Jaws 3-D) effectively ended their franchise’s ability to continue making successful sequels. It’s a sign that to me shows that the sequel game was still in its infancy in 1983. Sequels to great movies are almost always going to succeed financially but people are only willing to be burned once.

As sequels go, Staying Alive, which is the sequel to the iconic 1977 film Saturday Night Fever, doesn’t quite fit the mold of many of its other critically disastrous sequel brethren. For one thing, it has remarkably little to do with its predecessor. Yes, both movies heavily feature music and dance and follow the cocky, hot-headed Tony Manero (John Travolta) on his quest for stardom but aside from that, Staying Alive doesn’t really feel like it’s even attempting to recapture the things that made Saturday Night Fever such a hit with audiences and critics. While the original film attempted to capture the electric atmosphere of the disco scene, Staying Alive moves away from that world entirely and follows Tony into the world of Broadway dancing as Tony tries to breakthrough as a chorus line dancer.

Audiences in 1983 may have flocked to theaters the first few weekends but after that the film quickly fell off the map as fans of the original film, a movie that defined a subculture to the rest of the world, realized that the sequel didn’t have what they were looking for. Critics blasted the pic, with Roger Ebert calling it “a big disappointment” and commenting on how little the film cared about the characters or story and instead was intended to be little more than “a Walkman for the eyes.”

Like most bad sequels, Staying Alive was the result of nearly everyone from the first film re-assembling for the sequel – except of course for the most important person from the first production, director John Badham who had moved on to directing a slew of critically and commercially successful movies by now, including 1983 hits Blue Thunder and WarGames. Returning for Staying Alive off-screen was offbeat screenwriter Norman Wexler (click here to read his bio and understand why he might not be the guy you want to hang your hat on for emotional realism in a film) and producer Robert Stigwood. In the process of putting the project together, Stigwood supposedly saw Rocky III on a plane and had the epiphany that Sylvester Stallone, who had directed two of the most financially successful sequels of all time in the second and third Rocky films, would be a perfect choice to handle what Stigwood hoped would be a big money sequel to a critically-acclaimed and iconic ’70s film.

The choice of Stallone was the first move in what I believe was a domino effect of failure. While Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever was an uneducated, emotionally stunted young man, he was by no means an uninteresting person to listen to. His dialog is remarkably clever and interesting and it reveals a lot to us about his character. I believe in Stallone’s tinkering with the screenplay on Staying Alive, he attempted to turn Manero into a bit of a Rocky Balboa type figure, a man almost completely incapable of expressing himself and even when he does doesn’t really have much interesting to say. On top of that Stallone decided that instead of heavily featuring the Bee Gees, the group responsible for making Saturday Night Fever‘s soundtrack the best selling soundtrack album of all time (a record that still stands), he would instead feature his brother Frank Stallone who was attempting to launch his own pop/rock career. Frank’s song “Far From Over” is featured heavily in the film, including in the opening credits sequence shown below, and while it went on to earn multiple award nominations and score big on the pop charts, it’s a song done in that typically overdramatic ’80s rock style that just doesn’t have anywhere near that same evocative feeling that the Bee Gee’s monumental string of hits brought to the original film.

While Travolta has his moments, I frankly found him a lot more likable and charming in Two of a Kind, probably a result of the fact that unlike that film which paired him with Olivia Newton-John, Travolta has no chemistry with his co-stars in Staying Alive. Singer/actress Cynthia Rhodes plays good girl Jackie and while she’s likable enough, the movie gives us no real reason to root for Tony to end up with here. Meanwhile femme fatale Laura is played by British-born Finola Hughes who received a flood of criticism for her work here as a highly unlikable and bitchy dancer who for some reason continues to attract Tony despite her vicious attitude towards him.

The single-biggest issue that makes Staying Alive difficult to sit through is the interminable musical sequences, the aspect alluded to by Ebert in his “Walkman for the eyes” comment. The movie features no fewer than five (there could have been more) sequences that showcase an entire song, uninterrupted from start to finish. Most of them are built around highlighting the dancing but some, such as two different duets sung by Cynthia Rhodes and Frank Stallone, are literally just extended scenes of two people playing and singing a song on stage while Tony watches from the floor. It’s a lack of understanding about what the audience liked about Saturday Night Fever and even the visual fireworks Stallone attempts to inject, like in this remarkably absurd super slow motion dance scene, can’t keep us from nodding off and wondering when we can get back to the story.

There are a lot of film nerds out there, including quite a few who contribute to this site, who feel that there’s something inherently wrong with making sequels in the first place. I don’t always agree with that provided that you attempt to take what worked in the original film and add to it and expand on it in interesting ways. What Staying Alive does is abandon almost everything that made Saturday Night Fever great and include a few spare parts to justify calling this a sequel.

DOWNLOAD: Back to the Movies Podcast – Staying Alive (with guest Francesca Scalici)

Next Up: Clint Eastwood directs and stars in the fourth installment of the Dirty Harry series, the 1983 smash hit Sudden Impact.