Coming up on its 40th anniversary, Staying Alive continues to be one of the most bizarre sequels to be made by a major studio, starring John Travolta and co-written and directed by Sylvester Stallone. The film was intended to be a sequel to the massively popular Saturday Night Fever, but when Staying Alive came out, disco was pretty much dead, and really there isn’t much that connects the films but for the character Tony Manero (John Travolta) and that there is dancing in the film. When the movie came out it was a financial success, but it was pretty well hated by critics of the time to the point that even one of the film’s stars, Finola Hughes, was awarded a Razzie for her performance. Apparently the film has a loyal cult following, but now after 40 years I’m here to give this film a fair shake and decide for myself: is it as bad as people say, or is it a gem from the 80s that will make us all nostalgic for when there were several movies with the cast in leotards, headbands, and over-the-top dance numbers?
It’s been a few years since Tony Manero (John Travolta) was dancing through the disco tournament, and now he is a dance instructor who is trying to make it to the next level of his dancing career to be a part of a Broadway stage production. The biggest change I feel we’ve seen in Tony is that he’s managed to become more arrogant and has coasted by on his good looks and dancing, though he’s pretty far from living the dream. He has a causal relationship with Jackie (Cynthia Rhodes), who is also a dance instructor, and the pair struggle together with auditions for various productions. For the viewers it is easy for us to want Tony to settle down with Jackie. She’s good for him, and in many ways too good for him, but Tony just always has his eyes on something bigger. He expects greatness for himself and will settle for nothing less. His opportunity comes along with the Broadway production of “Satan’s Alley”, where he lands a part and falls for the lead in the performance, Laura (Finola Hughes). She’s out of his league and is only using him for a good time, but Tony is blissfully ignorant, and this only creates drama for the production.
Despite a good portion of the film involving rehearsals for the production of “Satan’s Alley”, I have no clue what the production is about, though I believe the descent into hell is involved with dancers in weird S&M costumes and Tony in a loincloth and nothing else. Oddly enough, the bizarre production in the final act is probably the best part of the film, just because it is so over-the-top and filled with spectacle and flesh on screen you just can’t look away. Seeing Travolta as a Christ-like sex symbol in the final act can be read into a lot of ways. Some may find it offensive, while others may find it a homoerotic gyrating gift… However you take it, I don’t think you’re wrong, but I just want to know what Stallone was thinking when deciding to do this THIS film and make it THIS way. It is stands out from everything else he’s done before, and while on a technical level it is well done, the script borders on awful at times, and I can understand why critics hated this when it first released.
The biggest problem with the film is with Tony. The character is just so unlikeable that it is hard to root for him, which doesn’t allow this to be an underdog story. With how he treats Jackie, it’s also a romance that is hard to support, because we all know she deserves and can do much better than Tony. But let’s be real; when she possibly has a relationship bloom with the guitar player, Carl (Frank Stallone), none of us want that to happen. Then there is Laura. Though she’s out of Tony’s league, they somewhat deserve one another, though it’s obvious their vanity would inevitably drive a wedge between them.
As much as I’d say on a technical level this is a well-made film, this film suffers from a lot of slow-motion dance shots and lens flares. The lens flares I can somewhat handle, but the slow-motion dance shots are so overdone and just seem silly at times, and I’m pretty sure that wasn’t what Stallone was going for. Then there are the shots of characters “gazing” at Tony … It’s like every character watching him dance just wants to have a Manero sandwich, but funny enough, when he’s at his apartment all the other tenants couldn’t care less. They’re worried with their own lives and couldn’t care less about what Tony does on stage. I feel like Stallone was well aware of the sexual innuendo he was injecting into this film. I just wish there was a commentary with him to just explain some things, like was this a commentary on him feeling sexualized in his Rocky films and his dabbling into “adult” cinema before breaking out? Not saying that I’m righ.t but there is definitely more going on in this film than meets the eye.
Maybe it is a preference thing, but I just wasn’t a fan of this soundtrack at all. Saturday Night Fever had a soundtrack that was just the perfect blend for that specific time, the whole magic-in-a-bottle kind of moment. They try so hard to duplicate that magic here, and it just falls flat and feels so dated and so very 80s, but not in a good way. We don’t even get the title song “Staying Alive” till the final scene in the film, and while it works, it feels more gratuitous this time around seeing Travolta strut than it did the first time when it was just a smooth and cool walk sequence.
Staying Alive is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The ultra-high-definition image presentation is arrived at with an HEVC codec at an average of 75-80 mbps. The film was shot on 35mm so is native 4K. Overall this was a pretty disappointing restoration. The natural grain of the film remains, but it has been converted to appear more as digital noise than organic grain. There also appears to be a lot of smoothing in evidence here, which also takes away much of the natural look of the film. The HDR helps somewhat with slight color boost and some improvement to the black levels, but none of it rises to the standards we’ve come to expect both from UHD restorations from 35mm negatives or from so many quality Kino titles on UHD. The image is flat, and while there’s likely more detail here than previously, it doesn’t blend naturally with the environments.
The DTS-HD MA 5.1 track adds some depth to the source material and serves the dialog and music pretty well. I was a little disappointed that there isn’t much going on in the subs, and some of the big musical numbers suffer a little because of it. Still, dialog comes through clear. You can still enjoy the original 2.0 track here, and honestly there isn’t much difference.
Commentary with film historian David Del Valle and Ed King with the Irish Film Institute: well, this is a deep dive into the homoerotic themes of the film with two guys who are legitimate fans of the film. Their insight on the film just left me with more questions as to what Stallone was doing with this film.
Alive and Kicking: An Interview with Actress Finola Hughes: (14:59) A decent interview that gets into how she got the role to the reactions the film got. For fans of the film, it is worth checking out.
This is just one of those sequels that wasn’t needed, but at the same time sort of works as a standalone film. Travolta is entertaining, but this to me is a far cry from his best work. For that I’d look to Blow Out or in the 90s Get Shorty. This is one of those films worth checking out if you want to see Travolta in his “physical” prime and a third act that is a mesmerizing disaster.
Parts of this review were written by Gino Sassani