(On TV, February 2017) Some movies are burdened with a bad reputation well before we can see a single frame of it, and so Staying Alive remains widely vilified as a terrible sequel to the quasi-classic Saturday Night Fever. But an appraisal nearly thirty-five years later may be more forgiving: While it’s nowhere near the dramatic intensity and off-beat maturity of its predecessor, Staying Alive has become a strangely interesting follow-up, steeped into eighties atmosphere like few others. Our hero has become a struggling Broadway dancer, and much of the movie avoids disco entirely to focus on nothing much more than a story of love and ambition set against the New York music theatre scene. John Travolta is, once again, very good from a purely physical performance point of view: he dances well even though the spotlight is seldom just on him. Finola Hughes is also remarkable as the film’s enigmatic temptress figure. Otherwise, though—it’s your standard romantic triangle, climbing-the-rungs-of-success kind of film. Under writer/director Sylvester Stallone, it plays like an underdog drama set on Broadway, with a finale that has the merit of not being purely triumphant. It’s, in other words, an average film that would be hazily remembered today if it wasn’t for its association with its predecessor. I can imagine the let-down in 1983 as fans of the first movie watched this follow-up and wondered what happened. Today, freed from some of those expectations, Staying Alive is merely ordinary, although the eighties atmosphere has now become an advantage for the film.
(On Cable TV, January 2017) Disco was such an instantly dated phenomenon that it would be easy to assume that any movie made about it during its heyday would be a disposable fluff piece, celebrating disco and featuring the music at the expense of everything else. But that’s not what Saturday Night Fever actually is—daringly using disco as a window into the inner struggles of a young man trying to figure himself. It arguably starts where lesser disco movies would end—with our protagonist mitigating his humdrum family life and low-end job with wild nights at the discotheque where he is the king of the dance floor. But that, of course, is not the end of the story. Despite the gleeful disco scenes at the beginning of the film (and this is a film that features its most exhilarating moments early on), Saturday Night Fever gradually delves into darker and more dramatic material, as our protagonist meets a woman out of his class and becomes aware that he’s got a lot of growing up to do. Issues of lost faith, dangerously strong yearnings to be loved, unwarranted success, young people trapped in untenable situations are discussed, taking us far beyond what we’d expect from a disco movie. (Although, as noted elsewhere, most disco-themed movies do usually delve deep into darkness.) The ending is particularly bittersweet, stabilizing our protagonist’s situation after a few crushing losses. It’s almost hard to reconcile just a multilayered dramatic film with its all-hits soundtrack (you can have the “Staying Alive” opener, I’ll keep the “A Fifth of Beethoven” club entrance sequence) and reputation as a major cultural milestone. A very young John Travolta turns in a terrific performance, not only as a dramatic actor but as an impressive dancer as well. It all amounts to a far more satisfying film than expected, and a captivating period film about the disco era that feels more finely aged than hopelessly dated. I’m told that there’s a sequel and that it’s to be avoided… [February 2017: There is a sequel, Staying Alive, but it’s merely ordinary.]