Cinemalphabet: S is for Staying Alive (1983)
Let me start by stating in no uncertain terms Staying Alive is a terrible film. I have seen this film more times that I am personally willing to quantify. Summer of ’84 went something like this:
- Wake up. Eat Breakfast. Watch Staying Alive.
- Go to school (if applicable).
- Walk up to the airbase, play pool or UNO at the youth center then go home and watch Staying Alive
- Fight with my sister. Go to the bedroom, practice specific routines from Flashdance and Staying Alive while listening to the soundtrack – the movies, of course, were on the same VHS cassette.
- Dance along WITH the film. Or make the Cabbage Patch Dolls do so.
- Eat dinner, then retire to the living room to watch parts of the film before heading off to the airbase to play kickball.
Why is this so cheesy? Oh, did I mention I was living on the glorious isle of CRETE at the time? A place with history and feta crumbling all around me, yet I spent an embarrassing amount of time freeze framing Stallone’s – who directed this mess – brush against Tony cameo, which long enough for the cheap seats not to miss it. I’ll be honest, I never get tired of watching that 14 seconds!
Roger Ebert had this to say:
The big musical climaxes are interrupted only long enough for people to shout prepackaged emotional countercharges at each other. There is little attempt to approximate human speech.
Like the Rocky movies, “Staying Alive” ends with a big, visually explosive climax. It is so ludicrous it has to be seen to be believed. It’s opening night on Broadway: Tony Manero not only dances like a hero, he survives a production number of fire, ice, smoke, flashing lights and laser beams, throws in an improvised solo — and ends triumphantly by holding Finola Hughes above his head with one arm, like a quarry he has tracked and killed. The musical he is allegedly starring in is something called “Satan’s Alley,” but it’s so laughably gauche it should have been called “Springtime for Tony.”
Earlier in the review Ebert states, “He [Stallone] remembers all the moves from his Rocky plots, but he leaves out the heart — and, even worse, he leaves out the characters.” and on that analysis I fully agree. It is not the laser beams, gaudy costumes, stilted dialog or ham handed acting making this film the napalm assault on the senses – naturally they do their share of the heavy lifting – but is that lack of heart. It’s why I can watch Rocky IV or – hell, Over the Top without feeling patronized. Now Stallone can write himself a script, of course, unfortunately, he can only do so with any degree of awesomeness if he’s starving, broke and about to be evicted from his apartment. In that way he does echo his alter ego Rocky, who always does his most impressive works when the chips are down and the furnishings are lumpy.
Rocky is a fantastic script, riddled with incredible feats of class/race analysis devoid of class/race conflation. Apollo has all the earmarks of class privilege, and none have anything to do with him being a rich boxer. He has education, staunchly middle class values and a partner who reflects those values. As does Rocky with working class values. It’s why Rocky went broke and Apollo didn’t (leaving aside the whole died in the ring issue). It also explains why Rocky felt entitled to fight Apollo and equal to him as well. It also explains why Apollo always had freaking Lay’s bbq kettle chip on his shoulder, compelling him to constantly prove himself worthy. (a quality that would eventually result in his death)
Hey, maybe he didn’t even know he went there, but as a person who has her own battles with relevancy, I’m inclined to assume he knew exactly what messages he sought to transmit in his script. Whether or not one agrees, is an entirely different matter.
If there is a case to made against nepotism, Staying Alive provides ample supporting evidence. Frank Stallone, while being a decent musician – albeit better singer – is woefully miscast even in the most disposal of roles as a dive bar performer in Manero’s love interest’s band. If he was there to act as a foil to Tony, well that was wasted SAG time as well. He’s not jerky enough and given that the audience has had lots of time to frame Tony as a money grubbing, gold digging, fame hungry assclown, nobody’s going to come out all that badly when compared to him!
Like Frank, who’s song “Far From Over” is a far better song than it gets credit for – Cynthia Rhodes is poorly utilized as Jackie (the love interest). She has none of the complexity or – heart – and therefore comes across as kind of ridiculous for putting up with all of Tony’s antics. Rhodes is a fantastic dancer with dazzling vocal abilities completely overshadowed by her inability to act. Ditto for Finola Hughes, who is featured as the bitchy, British dancer, though with performances in cheesy productions such as this one wonders who lied to this character about her actual level of fabulousness. Fosse wannabe numbers are set to music evoking elevators, scrolling community events calendars on public access and a small city’s eyewitness evening news theme.
Let’s talk dialog. Some.of.the.worse.
For every quote worthy quip like, “And accent doesn’t make someone intelligent, if it did you’d be Einstein.” there are laughable ones like, “The show’s the thing, Manero! Not you! You remember that!”
Now the show the pompous Kenny Loggins looking director froths about is hardly worth the mouth foam. It’s bad and hilarious in every way you could possibly imagine both trading on existing tropes (doing your own thing saves the day and everyone loves it!) and creating new ones too! Every time I watch any of the dance sequences I wonder how clearly accomplished dancers could allow their medium to be depicted so horribly. Well I know the answer, but it’s still fun to pretend I don’t.
This is why Staying Alive feels especially punishing with some distance from my dance party days and my unwillingness to dismiss it as cheese. It’s as though Stallone never saw Saturday Night Fever!
At this point it’s just overkill to note Robert Stigwood’s involvement in this film.