The 1983 film Staying Alive is a sequel to Saturday Night Fever. That’s right, Tony Manero’s back! And, if possible, he’s even dumber than before.
Actually, that’s not fair. The whole point of Saturday Night Fever was that Tony really was not that dumb. He was poorly educated. He was a prisoner of his culture and his economic situation. If he acted stupid, it was because he lived in a world that distrusted intelligence. If he was selfish, it was because that was his way of dealing with his own insecurities. If we got frustrated with him, it’s because we knew he was capable of more than he realized he was. In Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta gave such good performance and Tony was such a carefully drawn character that we forgave him for the many times that he let us down.
But, in Staying Alive, Tony is just an idiot. Somehow, he’s managed to escape Brooklyn. He now works as a waiter and a dance instructor and goes on auditions for Broadway shows. He has no contact with his old friends. (He never even mentions the night that one of them jumped off a bridge.) He lives in one of those scary New York flophouses — apparently the same one that Travis Bickle called home in Taxi Driver — but otherwise, Tony’s doing pretty well for himself. The only problem is that Tony is now a complete and total moron.
That really is the only conclusion that one can draw from John Travolta’s performance here. It’s not just that Travolta gives a bad performance in a role for which he was once nominated for an Oscar. It’s that Travolta gives such a bad performance that he actually transcends the accepted definition of bad. He resurrects all the tics from his Saturday Night Fever performance but he goes so overboard with them that you feel like you’re watching someone do an imitation of John Travolta playing Tony Manero than actually watching John Travolta.
Speaking of self-parody, Staying Alive was directed by Sylvester Stallone. Now, I know that when you think of the ideal director for a dance movie, Sylvester Stallone is probably the first name that comes to mind.
As for the film itself, Tony gets a job working in the chorus of a Broadway show called Satan’s Alley and, wouldn’t you know it, he eventually replaces the male lead. Tony finds himself torn between the bitchy (and, somewhat inevitably, British) star of the show (Finola Hughes) and his long-suffering, on-and-off again girlfriend Jackie (Cynthia Rhodes).
Jackie, incidentally, is also the lead singer in a band. The band’s guitarist, Carl, is in love with her. Guess who plays Carl? Frank Stallone! That’s right, the director’s brother. There is a hilarious scene where Carl plays guitar while shooting a death glare at Tony. Frank really nails that death glare.
But, ultimately, the main appeal of Staying Alive is that we get to see Satan’s Alley, which is probably the most unintentionally hilarious fake Broadway show to ever be immortalized on film. Satan’s Alley is about one man’s journey into Hell and… well, that really sums it up, doesn’t it? If you asked someone who has never danced, never listened to music, and perhaps never actually stepped outside of their bedroom to write a Broadway musical, chances are that they would come up with something like Satan’s Alley.
And they’d probably cast Tony Manero as the lead!