Best of Yakmala: Staying Alive

We’ve been at this iteration of the Satellite Show for a little over a year and, somehow, “Staying Alive” has never received a proper “Best of Yakmala” review. Let’s get the ball rolling with a little bit of history.

I saw “Staying Alive” around the time that it was released back in 1983. I remember seeing it in a theater. I would’ve been five at the time, but I have no clue why my family thought it was important that I experience this film. This was also the early days of VCRs, so when the film came out on home video, one of my uncles dubbed it to an extended play VHS tape that had a bunch of “He-Man” episodes on it and, possibly, “Tron.”

Why members of my family went to all this effort for the regrettable sequel to “Saturday Night Fever” is beyond me.

Also: I’ve never seen “Saturday Night Fever.”

Okay, plot time: Some years after the events of “Saturday Night Fever,” we find Tony Manero (John Travolta) living and working in Manhattan. He tries to set up gigs as a professional dancer, but works in a fitness club teaching dance by day and waiting tables at an archly 1980s dance club by night. His lack of success is assuaged by Jackie (Cynthia Rhodes), his doormat of a girlfriend.

"Mind if I cheat on you again?"

When Tony sees Jackie perform in a real professional show, he meets the Finola Hughes character. (I’m not going to tell you her name because this is important flaw in the film.) Tony feels a stirring in his dance belt and tries to pick her up. While she doesn’t give into his advances right away, she tells him about the auditions for the new show she’ll be starring in.

The next day, he auditions, beds Ms. So-and-so and gets the part in the Broadway dance-only show, “Satan’s Alley.” As the director (Steve Inwood) puts it, “It’s a journey through hell, and it ends with an ascent to Heaven.” The rest of the film is a series of scenes where Tony and Ms. Dancer fight, make up,  and fight again; all the while Jackie gets stood up or takes second position to a woman Tony finds “significant.”

All of these scenes are either set to Bee Gees tracks or the work of the director’s brother, Frank Stallone.

I have this album cover framed.

Eventually, Jackie grows a backbone and breaks up with Tony for a day or two. Tony, meanwhile, takes over the lead part in the show.

The last twenty minutes of the film contains what appears to be the entirety of “Satan’s Alley.” I’ll try to explain the show in the most lucid way possible. A Tomahawk Warrior rides an uncomfortable chair into an unfinished part of Hell dominated by scaffolding. Though initially empty, the Warrior must dance-fight with the various demons stuck in this corner of Damnation.

Tony as the Tomahawk Warrior

Once he seems to have won the respect of the denizens, a Succubus appears and challenges the Warrior to a dance-off. The first act ends with the Warrior and the Succubus equally matched.

The second act appears to be a retread of much of the first, but presented to us in slow motion … I’m not sure how that’s achieved on stage. It does end differently, though. The Warrior and the Succubus slide into the home bases of their mutual nether-regions.

In the final act, the Succubus steps up her game. She has a few S& M demons whip the Warrior, tie him up, and drag him toward the only completed portion of the titular alley; a steel and fire maw. She stands just inside, hoping to lead the Warrior into its satiny flames. Instead, a power from above breaks the demons’ concentration and the Warrior escapes his bonds. He begins a final dance routine that causes a platform to rise up out of the fog-covered ground. He offers the Succubus a chance to join him. She makes a great leap onto the riser and the two ascend into Heaven.

After the show, Tony more or less commits to Jackie, rejects Ms. Dancer and does the only thing he knows how to do when he’s really happy: strut.

While the film has mostly faded into obscurity, it remains an important work in the annals of Yakmala for two important reasons.

One: it began my love of what we call “movies of questionable quality.” It always stuck in my memory and I would watch it whenever VH1 aired the film as a “Movie that Rocks.” Then, one day, I bought a copy mostly as a joke and a threat to the friend who was with me at the time. This coincides, more or less, with the arrival of a vinyl copy of Frank Stallone’s self-titled debut album to The Satellite Show.

Two: it was the second movie ever shown at Yakmala, the first being “Gymkata.” Like that movie, it reflects the purest spirit of a Yakmala film: passion despite deep flaws.

And boy, does this movie feature flaws. You may have noticed that I earlier refused to identify Finola Hughes’s character by name. It’s spoken twice in the film and the first time it’s uttered, it feels like an afterthought. Subsequently, Tony makes a big deal out of the limo she rides around in. His refrain, “Whose limo is this?” became the first Yakmala catchphrase precisely because it’s a plot point that never, ever, gets resolved.

No, wait, it does. The first time Tony brings it up, Jackie says, “I think it belongs to her. Everyone says she comes from money.” Yet, a month later in film time, he point-blank asks Ms. Dancer about it.

These things reflect a lack of attention to the details by the screenwriter, Sylvester Stallone. He clearly wants to make her money an issue, but it never gets fleshed out. I think the point he’s trying to make is that she’s something of a high-class whore, but it’s rather murky. Meanwhile, he never acknowledges that the real problem in this movie is Tony.

Our "hero."

The film roots for him at every turn. Despite his womanizing, stubbornness, and selfishness, Stallone (also the director) never quite gets around to punishing Tony for his transgressions even though the ending is clearly meant to illustrate his growth as a person. Instead, he’s rewarded for being an asshole. While it is possible to make a film with an unlikable protagonist, I don’t think Stallone meant for that to happen here. Clearly, everyone involved in the film expected Tony to experience the same sort of character growth as Rocky Balboa. They may have seen it that way at the time, but I suspect that was a symptom of the worldwide myopia in the early 1980s. The end result: a lack of characters all around.

Oddly enough, Stallone had already made “Rocky III” by this point. That film is largely a warning from Stallone to himself about the excess of fame and the need to stay grounded. “Staying Alive” is almost a rebuttal.

In lieu of any real character development, Stallone revels in what will become his directorial crutch throughout the decade: the musical montage. “Staying Alive” features six of them. Seven if you count the opening credits. That’s a lot of screen time devoted to sub-par Bee Gees tracks and Frank Stallone. I’ve watched the movie so many times now, that I wonder if the excessive montaging was always Stallone’s design or if he had to patch the film to leap over forgotten story threads and bad scenes. One of these montages actually contains what I consider to be the most embarrassing scene in motion picture history:

The film is only 93 minutes long, but it was made with the sort of late 1970s Paramount prestige sensibility that indicates it was intended to be a two hour-plus affair. I can’t imagine any extra scenes would make the film better or make Tony someone to care about.

So why is this movie so enjoyable? It goes back to that myopia I mentioned earlier. The unwavering belief that Tony is on a journey of personal growth washes over the film like the fog filters used in the rehearsal scenes. It informs the film in a special way and makes it oddly watchable. Like many Yakmala films to come, it also doggedly revolves around the same set of scenes, hoping that they’ll finally get it right. Despite that, the movie never feels all that bogged down. It actually has something of a pace that makes it accessible to people despite the underdeveloped characters. Really, though, it comes back to Stallone’s devotion to the material.

He no doubt intended “Staying Alive” to be an expose revealing the world of professional dancing. What we get is such a stew of flat acting, half-thought out plot points, and musical montages that the film more closely resembles science fiction than cinema verite. If this is supposed to be the gritty reality, the most important question has to be, “Where is the coke?”

Ooh, one last thing. Patrick Swayze has a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo as an extra in the film. Thanks to modern technology, I can finally present it:

He started as a dancer.

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About Erik

Erik Amaya is the host of Tread Perilously and the former Head Film/TV writer at Bleeding Cool. He has also contributed to sites like CBR, Comics Alliance and Fanbase Press. He is also the voice of Puppet Tommy on "The Room Responds."
This entry was posted in Projected Pixels and Emulsion, Yakmala! and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Best of Yakmala: Staying Alive

  1. Justin says:

    Are we sure that’s Patrick Swayze and not Bill Maher?

  2. Pingback: What Makes a Musical? | The Satellite Show

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