How can you tell the difference between a simply bad movie and a guilty pleasure? Well for one, when watching a guilty pleasure you may experience at least one out-of-body moment where you scream at yourself, “Dude, what the hell?! There has to be something better on TV right now. Infomercials, Leave It to Beaver reruns…anything!” And yet, objectivity is lost and you keep watching anyway.
Such was my dilemma as I stayed up way too late in my hotel room last night watching the 1983 John Travolta magnum opus Staying Alive. I was conscious of watching a terrible film yet powerless to stop myself. I’m not sure what was most compelling – the cheesy dialogue, the horribly dated dance moves and costumes, or the fact that Frank Stallone not only dominated the soundtrack but actually had a speaking role in the movie.
Of course, Frank is in there by no mere coincidence. You see, Staying Alive was not only produced by Sylvester Stallone, it was also co-written by him. In 1983, both Stallone and Travolta were enjoyed by the public in a non-ironic way. Stallone’s Rocky series was in full swing and we had yet to endure the fourth and fifth entries, and the first (and best) Rambo movie was out. Travolta, meanwhile, was still riding high from hits like Saturday Night Fever, Grease, and Urban Cowboy.
Stallone and his fellow backers, in a masterstroke production decision, opted to present Staying Alive as a sequel to the aforementioned Saturday Night Fever. Not that you’d know it by watching the movie. Other than the fact that Travolta’s character name was still Tony Manero and Julie Bovasso reprised her role as Mrs. Manero, the connection between the two movies is tenuous at best. Oh yeah, Tony is still a dancer. But since Disco was no longer cool by 1983, they decided to up the relevance factor by turning him into…a Broadway dancer! So Travolta traded in his leisure suits and chest hair for extremely tight leotards (and I do mean tight) and a shaved, greased-up pectoral region.
What Stallone seems to have forgotten is that while dancing was a key component of Fever, it wasn’t what made that movie great. They could’ve been into bingo instead. That movie was a gritty, realistic slice of life depicting the (mostly) unrealized potential and dreams of Tony and his friends. Hell, there’s even a suicide in it. Staying Alive, by contrast, is nothing more than a collection of goofy dance sequences set to bad music. The characters in Fever dance because it lets them escape their drab daily lives; the characters in Staying Alive dance as if they escaped from a mental ward.
And the coup de grace of Staying Alive? Why it’s opening night of the musical Tony struggled so hard to be the star of – Satan’s Alley. Yes, that’s actually the name of the musical. And yes, it sounds like one of the fake movie names used in Seinfeld. Say what you want about the disco dancing in Fever looking dated – it was at least relevant and hip for a few years. There’s no way Satan’s Alley was ever relevant, other than to a select group of Broadway fans.
So why do I watch Staying Alive, even with all this in mind? I don’t know for sure. There’s something compelling about watching a movie like this, where it seems everyone is trying so damn hard to deny the utter badness of it all. Travolta is also so damn likable, even though he is a bit of a nutjob. It’s also hard to resist any movie with dialogue like this:
Tony Manero: Don’t worry. She’s in good hands.
Carl (Frank Stallone!): And what are you, Allstate, pal?
Tony Manero: Yeah, you want disability?
Disability indeed, Tony. I think now you understand where I’m coming from.