One of the many things that made 1978’s Saturday Night Fever so enduring — as well as achingly sad — was the strong implication that, for all of his talent, swagger, sexiness, and charisma, teenaged anti-hero Tony Manero (John Travolta) would probably never realize his dreams and become a hotshot professional dancer.
There’s simply too much fierce competition for just a tiny number of slots, and Tony lacked the training, polish, and connections to set him apart from the rest of the fray. Furthermore, in director John Badham’s grim masterpiece (which Rocky director John G. Avildsen was slated to direct before parting ways over creative differences), Tony generally proved to be his own worst enemy, with a smart mouth, explosive temper, and penchant for violence that collectively had a way of slamming shut the doors that his talent, charm, and looks opened for him.
In other words, Tony Manero was a small-time loser with big-time ambitions. He was racist, virulently misogynistic, narcissistic, and indifferent to the suffering of others, most notably Annette (Donna Pescow), a vulnerable, heartbreakingly sad admirer who followed him like a lost puppy the entire film and was repaid for her devotion with a sexual assault by two members of Tony’s creepy gang, who had all of his many horrible flaws and none of his redeeming virtues. Even Tony’s climactic dance contest win in Saturday Night Fever was tainted by the racism of a crowd that only voted for him and his partner because they were white, unlike the couple that deserved to win.
Movies are full of purehearted dreamers who overcome formidable obstacles through talent, will, and a ferocious determination never to give up, no matter how bleak things might look, and Saturday Night Fever, to its eternal credit, is not one of those movies. Staying Alive, however, to its eternal detriment, most assuredly is. It shamelessly embraces all of the hoary show business and dance movie cliches its predecessor boldly eschewed.
To put things in animation terms, between John Badham’s Oscar-nominated 1978 film and Sylvester Stallone’s 1983 follow-up, the vibe went from Ralph Bakshi‘s New York grit and grime to Walt Disney’s sweetness, polish, and shine. Alternately, if the classic Italian neorealist milestone The Bicycle Thieves had spawned a sequel in which struggling father Antonio recovered his bike, trained under the mentorship of a gruff but kindly veteran cyclist, and won the Tour de France, the tonal shift would have been every bit as jarring, insane, and shameless as Staying Alive’s brazen switch from hard-edged realism to gaudy wish fulfillment fantasy. Staying Alive was a commercial success, to be sure, but at the cost of Saturday Night Fever’s dark, sweaty, coked-up soul.
Staying Alive trades Brooklyn for Broadway as its primary setting and a very 1970s darkness and social consciousness for 1980s upbeat flash. Tony is no longer a pill-popping degenerate who lives with his folks, works at a hardware store, and wows the ladies at dance clubs, but a focused, disciplined winner ferociously devoted to chasing his dreams.
Tony has similarly ditched the posse of poignantly pathetic, drug-addled, violently misogynistic bigots in order to pursue his noble aspirations to Broadway stardom. He’s off drugs and high on life. He doesn’t curse anymore. He doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t drink, and he doesn’t beat up people of color. His only real remaining vice is women, and even in that department he’s evolved from Neanderthal cretin to nice guy, though he finds it exceedingly difficult to stay faithful, and his affections are split between a pair of love interests who fall rather neatly into the categories of devilish diva and girl next door.
The better Tony is as a human being, though, the worse he is as an anti-hero, and that is not good for the movie as a whole. Staying Alive shaves away all the rough edges that made Tony so compelling, rendering him another generic dreamer distinguished only by the fact that he looks, moves, and talks like John Travolta near the prime of his youth.
The girl next door is Jackie (Cynthia Rhodes), a sweet, modestly talented dancer and singer Tony likes enough to string along — but not enough to commit to her, although he does get awfully jealous when he sees Carl, with whom Jackie has sizzling musical chemistry onstage, gazing longingly at her. Incidentally, Carl is played by Frank Stallone (i.e. brother to Sylvester), who also wrote and performed much of the music on the soundtrack, and whose song “Far from Over” landed in the top 10 and earned him both Golden Globe and Grammy nominations.
The other, more important love interest is Laura (future soap opera queen Finola Hughes), a posh British dancer and woman of wealth and taste who takes a fancy to Tony, but only as a boy toy, a sexual conquest to be used and then discarded when she tires of him. That proves more difficult than anticipated when, due to Tony’s unbelievable, irrepressible talent, as well as the time-honored cliches frequently found in movies like this, he’s promoted to male lead of Satan’s Alley, the hilariously overwrought Broadway extravaganza at the film’s core.
Saturday Night Fever benefited from an almost documentary-like sense of verisimilitude — it was pop sociology you could dance to — whereas Staying Alive hilariously depicts the Broadway world of the early 1980s as overwhelmingly heterosexual and drug-free, even as Satan’s Alley is comically over-the-top in its homoeroticism. The big closing production number is one third proto-Showgirls kitsch minus the satire, irony, and self-consciousness; one third singing, dancing outtake from William Friedkin’s notorious drama Cruising; and one third knock-off of The Apple. The sexed-up, scowling choreography, meanwhile, suggests something Bob Fosse might come up with if he were hit in the head and suffered a neurological malady that removed all his talent.
It speaks to the profound disconnect in tone and quality between Saturday Night Fever and its dopey, widely despised follow-up that Tony spends much of the film apologizing for the way he behaved in the first film, for being a potty-mouthed (no place for that in a PG-rated, family-friendly film like Staying Alive!), woman-hating, pill-popping, disrespectful creep.
In real life, that would be an admirable gesture. Here, it feels like Tony is apologizing for everything that made his character complicated and interesting in Saturday Night Fever. When he apologizes to his skeptical mother in Staying Alive, Tony even tells her that the sober, hardworking young mensch she sees before her is the real Tony.
“That wasn’t the real you back then?” she inquires earnestly, to which Tony answers, “Yeah.”
In actuality, the real Tony Manero is the sexy, darkly magnetic monster of id and ego from the first film. It’s this domesticated clone, who looks like the old Tony but doesn’t talk or act anything like him, who seems egregiously phony, as does Staying Alive as a whole.
Travolta may be playing a perversely cleaned up and watered down version of one of his signature characters, a kinder, gentler striver you would be happy to bring home to mother, but the Grease superstar and pop icon nevertheless oozes boyish charm, sexiness, and blinding movie star charisma.
He’s almost too appealing and likable here, since it was precisely that air of incoherent, bottomless rage that made his Oscar-nominated performance in Saturday Night Fever so riveting and endlessly rewatchable. As a follow-up to an unexpected American classic, Staying Alive is an insult to everything its predecessor stood for. As a vehicle for Travolta’s movie star magnetism, however, it’s full of breezy pleasures.
Ultimately, Staying Alive is ragingly imperfect, and it does many things very, very wrong, but there is at least one thing that it does very right.
At the very end of the movie, after he’s triumphed in Satan’s Alley and really stuck it to his co-star and director with an elaborate, impromptu solo against their wishes, Tony decides to celebrate by strutting down the Manhattan sidewalk to the Bee Gees’ all-time great “Staying Alive.” Travolta shakes off the strictures of cliche, convention, and formula, and the film ends on a note of unexpected victory.
In a film ferociously devoted to doing whatever it thinks its audience wants, this final moment marks the only time when pandering to the audience turns out to be the right move. The ending, and only the ending, of Staying Alive is absolutely perfect. It cannot be improved upon. That alone is enough to distinguish it from every other film I’ve written about for this column so far.
Nathan Rabin is a freelance writer, columnist, the first head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, most recently Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me. Follow Nathan on Twitter: @NathanRabin