Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Staying Alive
While sequels and franchise pictures appear to be a modern occurrence, they are almost as old as cinema itself with characters like Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp making his way across the silent era and inexpensive film series like The Thin Man and The Durango Kid filling a voracious appetite for familiar faces and ideas through the 1930s and 1940s. As programmers disappeared from movie palaces and molted into cheap drive-in fare, repeating characters and situations became more of a novelty in the studio system. 1951’s Father’s Little Dividend is one of those curios as a sequel to the original Father of the Bride. Sequelizing would return to the mainstream Hollywood studios with the Planet of the Apes and Dirty Harry series, leading to the most prestige sequel of all time: The Godfather Part II. With both high and low cinema embracing the notion that one can repeate success by using familiar characters and situations, suddenly every film could have a sequel. Well, maybe not Witness or Silkwood, but studios were not afraid to try. Which leads to this weekend’s film, Paramount’s attempt to turn Saturday Night Fever into a franchise: Staying Alive.
The plot find Tony Manero (John Travolta) living in Manhattan and attempting to break into show business as a professional dancer. To make ends meet, he teaches a dance class and works night an early 80s night club. He also appears to be something of a player; with the ladies at the club giving him extra sized tips just to see him walk away in tight pants and inviting him to after-hours parties where the sex — and presumably cocaine — flows like some sort of abundant liquid.
But he’s dissatisfied with this life because he is not in a Broadway show. His nominal girlfriend Jackie (Cynthia Rhodes) tries to assuage his fears, but since she is working as a chorus girl, he has a hard time hearing her sympathy. When he goes to see the last performance of Jackie’s current show, he meets its star, Laura (Finola Hughes) — a character the film rarely addresses by name — and tries his best to use the Manero charm on her. She doesn’t take the bait, but when she learns he is also a dancer, she suggests he try out for her next show, Satan’s Alley. Impressed with her foreign accent and apparent wealth, he goes to the audition and ends up sleeping with her.
Yeah, I know, I mentioned he has a girlfriend. The movie is of two minds on this issue.
Tony gets a part in the show and as rehearsals begin, he and Laura begin a strange tug of war as Tony cannot accept that she played him the way he usually plays the women back at the club. When he notices the male lead and the director (Steve Inwood) fighting over choreography, Tony convinces him to let him try out. The tension between Tony and Laura comes out in the performance; convincing the director that Tony is the star he’s been looking for.
Oh, also, Jackie breaks up with Tony and seems to get googly-eyes for Carl (Frank Stallone), a singer at a club she works at. But the break-up only seems to last a number of hours.
And if all of this sounds like rough draft ideas, that’s part of the charm. In what may have seemed like a coup at the time, Paramount hired Sylvester Stallone — fresh off Rocky III — to direct the film. He rewrote a draft completed by Saturday Night Fever writer Norman Wexler after Travolta told him his desire to see Tony become a star. The alterations lead to a film which suggests more plot than actually occurs.
Meanwhile, the film’s concept of early 80s Broadway is equally charming in its oddly innocent aspects. Wexler’s original script saw Tony succeeding as a chorus line dancer in a story maintaining more of the gritty pessimism of the first film, but as these ideas proved unpopular with star, director and studio, the resulting film offers a certain appealing naivete. The complete and utter lack of drugs throughout the film is staggering, even if Tony makes an oblique reference to substances early in the film. The omission of the subject — no doubt inspired by the studio’s wish to get a PG rating — colors much of the proceedings. Also, I’ve never been able to confirm whether or not dance-only shows were a popular format in the early 1980s, but in the world of Staying Alive, they appear to be the only type of show on the Great White Way.
Seemingly more on Stallone’s mind was the power dynamic between Laura and Tony. Much of the film concerns Tony’s inability to reconcile that he was a mere one-night stand for her while ignoring the fact he steps out on Jackie fairly regularly. Despite this getting a surprising amount of screentime, Stallone never actually confronts Tony’s real issue in a meaningful way; actually understanding how terrible he’s been. Granted, there is a scene where he admits these things to Jackie, but it comes so quickly after she breaks up with him (maybe five minutes of screentime occurs between the two scenes) that it never feels real.
Which is part of the fun of the film as a whole. It sets out to be this deep probe of another New York area subculture, but only manages to scratch the surface. Tony only seems tangentially involved in the world of dance and revues while hoping in and out of beds and proving he is still an arrogant ass from Brooklyn. He never really takes the audience to a place where the desire to make it, the politics surrounding that level of showbiz and the toll it takes feel like tangible things. Similarly, Tony is never really presented with a sense of jeopardy regarding his goals. But, then again, this is a common feature of Stallone scripts which make them both appealing and terrible all at once.
Meanwhile, if the sexual politics on display were an invention of Wexler, both Stallone and Travolta seem to be appalled by Laura’s apparent agency. Her freedom is the only antagonistic force on display throughout the film. Though Tony is told early on that she comes from money, the movie keeps trying to suggest she moonlights as a high class call girl; leading to Tony repeatedly asking about the source of the limo she uses. Even at the end, when she sees Tony’s star power, she is still portrayed as a spiteful manipulator. For as poorly as the film presents the character, Hughes plays the part well. It is no accident she would go on to appear in the ABC soaps General Hospital and All My Children or be cast as the first live-action Emma Frost in the Fox Generation X TV movie. She is very good in these sorts of roles, even if the male creatives around her fear a women in charge.
Travolta, for his part, sleepwalks through much of the film. Reportedly, Stallone put him on an extreme fitness regiment to craft the physique he wanted for the film’s climatic production of Satan’s Alley. He lost twenty pounds over five months of training and, seemingly, the will to do much else but dance. The charm he displayed in the 70s must have been contained in the weight he lost, because he is a unlikable jerk throughout the film. And while Tony (and Travolta) bumbles from scene to scene for most of the runtime, he does come to life during Satan’s Alley; proving Travolta’s physicality was always his key asset as a performer.
Inwood, meanwhile, steals every scene he’s in with a clinched-jaw delivery for dialogue as routine as “Extend, Butler, extend!” and as dramatic as his description of Satan’s Alley: “It’s a journey through Hell and it ends with an ascent to Heaven. You might think it’s simple. But if it’s gonna work, you have to bust your asses!” He is a delight undeserved both by the script and Stallone’s direction.
Similarly undeserved is Rhodes as Jackie. Perhaps not a great actor — this is one of her few acting gigs — she is a rather accomplished singer and dancer, but the film never really has the time for her real talents. Well, it does showcase her singing abilities thanks to two duets with Frank Stallone; an uptempo number called “Waking Up” and a slower, creaking song called “I’m Never Gonna Give You Up.” The second also features her abilities as a dancer, but Stallone’s choice to present the sequence in slow motion highlights issues with the choreography and leaves you feeling mightily embarrassed for both Rhodes and Travolta.
In fact, that sense of embarrassment permeates the film and makes it both difficult to watch and all the more enjoyable. Staying Alive is considered the worst sequel ever made and has the special distinction of receiving a 0% percent score on Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer. The contemporary reviews lambasted it for trading in Saturday Night Fever‘s grittiness for the overwrought glitz and pomp Stallone would chase in his directorial efforts throughout the decade.
Nevertheless, this shallow glitziness is the very source of its cheesy quality. When you sit down to watch Staying Alive for the first time, you can hardly believe it is real. It opens with a montage set to Frank Stallone’s hit single “Far From Over” and quickly moves on to another montage set to Tommy Faragher’s “Look Out for Number One.” While I might have mentioned Stallone’s fascination with montages in our look at Rocky III, Staying Alive is the film in which he devotes his heart and soul to the technique. Satan’s Alley itself, the story of a Tomahawk Warrior dancing his way out of incomplete portion of Hell, is just a baffling concept for an all-dance Broadway show which Stallone stages in a way that would be impossible in a real theater. Its second act is entirely in slow motion.
But for all of these reasons, Staying Alive might be the best cheesy movie ever made. It is, without a doubt, the best cheesy sequel. Like Tony Manero, it’s dumb, self-involved and totally oblivious to its failings. It is utterly entertaining despite everything it does wrong and is a movie you should watch right now.
Staying Alive is available for rent at the usual streaming platforms and for sale as a very inexpensive DVD.