Rarely has there been as drastic a shift in pop cultural aesthetics as that which transpired between the grainy, enfloralled 1970s and the sleek, vulcanized 1980s. Even more peculiar is the proximity between the key cultural events within that twenty year span. John Travolta has remarked that Saturday Night Fever – his Christmas 1977 star-making vehicle which ruled the box office throughout most of 1978 – was the movie which “gave the decade its cultural identity” (1); an alarming thought, considering how late that movie arrived into the decade. Nonetheless, by the time Travolta commenced with making a sequel in 1982, music and fashion had indeed changed, but the cultural ramifications of those changes were yet to be contextualized. Which begs the question: where did Travolta – the most iconic cultural figure before the great aesthetic shift – stand in the pop cultural paradigm following the shift?
The saga began with Saturday Night Fever, which centered around the artificial musical subculture known as disco; artificial in that disco was never so much the creative concept of musicians as it was the invention of producers, who combined the most arresting elements from various dance musics – latin, funk, boogie – into a populist hybrid, which swiftly overtook the Top 40 during the mid-70s and influenced many established acts like ABBA, Boz Scaggs and the Bee Gees. But contrary to common belief, Saturday Night Fever was not the apex of disco; it was the popular comeuppance of a form already in decline by late 1977. Much unloved by most rock enthusiasts, the ‘disco sucks’ campaign was already underway at the time of the movie’s release. Following the late-1978 career setbacks of those most associated with the movie – Travolta’s maligned Moment by Moment; the Bee Gees ill-advised big screen adaptation of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – the anti-disco movement viciously redoubled, culminating with the infamous Disco Demolition Night at Chicago’s Comiskey Park in July, 1979.
Despite the commercial triumph of Urban Cowboy (1980) and the critical acclaim of later cult-fave Blow Out (1981), Travolta’s status as a cultural pariah was already in effect by the close of the 1970s, with Robin Gibb even referring to him as “Revolta” in a May, 1979 Rolling Stone interview (2). Thus Travolta limped into the early 1980s, flanked by an anti-disco uproar and two box office flops; a predicament reflected in the earnest plea of Frank Stallone’s “Far From Over”, which served as the anthem to Staying Alive, the 1983 sequel to Saturday Night Fever. Granted, as hostile as the 1980-1982 period had been to the preceding disco era, the latter’s cultural enema status wouldn’t ossify until after the Second British Invasion of 1982/1983 – spawned by the emergence of MTV, which facilitated the stateside breakthrough of newfangled synthpop bands like Duran Duran and the Human League – whereupon the 1980s truly became ‘the 80s’ in the aesthetic sense. Therefore, Staying Alive was made during a limbo period where the public partook in ridicule of the disco era, but before people resolved to repress their collective memory of the 1970s entirely. Within this window, Tony Manero was allowed to step out and show the world just how much he had evolved in the five and a half years since he had last wowed us.
Manero made good on his wish at the close of Fever to escape Brooklyn and the thuggish mentality of his posse. He now lives in Manhattan, where he tends bar by night and teaches dance lessons by day. But he’s weary of futility; sliding into his late twenties wondering whether this is all he’ll ever amount to. There’s an unspoken moment which speaks volumes of the shifting times and Manero’s dilemma within them, and it occurs during a pause whilst tending bar. Noting the loud music and congested dance floor which fills the spacious club, Manero drifts off; his eyes floating past the neon-webbed walls (the 80s) and up to the mirror balls still hanging amongst the strobe lights from the ceiling (the 70s). He seems to come to the realization here of just how much times have changed since 1977, when he had danced his way to the top of what was then an intimate, exclusive club scene. Now it had become homogenized and trendy, with all the romance and spectacle of yore replaced by impersonal thumping devoid of grace or style; leaving revelers too engulfed in the swarm to notice anyone’s unique dancing skills. Once, the club scene was a breeding ground for talent, but now it was just a trap. The scene had taken Manero as far as it could; and yet he wanted to go further.
Buoyed in part by the modest dancing success of his tenuous romantic partner Jackie (Cynthia Rhodes), Manero embarks on an endless series of applications; spurned at every corner in his proposal to accept any gig that doesn’t involve nudity. Fortunes turn when he’s offered a chorus role in the same production involving Jackie and the divaesque Laura (Finola Hughes), the star of the show with whom he had briefly struck a fling. From here the film commences it strongest and weakest themes: the Rocky-like parable of career triumph, and the implausible lovelorn schizophrenia which entangles the three leads.
The interpersonal shenanigans are ill-synced with Manero’s career arc in this movie. He briefly scores with haughty Laura, only to lose her interest as soon as he scores his gig. Then Jackie draws the line; she’s more serious about relationships than he is, and so she’s now seriously ending things between them. But he cajoles Jackie into a subsequent ‘platonic’ date, only to woo her back in teary entreaty by night’s end. This makes for a cringe-inducing twist because it undermines Jackie’s constancy and places far flung expectancy on Manero’s resolve. He hasn’t ‘earned’ our trust as a reliable suitor, having repeatedly neglected Jackie in his attempts at further courting Laura. To further two-time on this latest reconciliation would go beyond the call of drama. Thankfully, there’s little subsequent development in the romantic department. He stays with Jackie and remains incommunicado with Laura, despite costarring with the latter in the climactic Satan’s Alley sequence. Nevertheless, he kisses Laura rather passionately during a romantic pause in their act, only to be fiercely rebuffed. This gives Jackie brief pause, but still the couple embraces at wrap-up before a stark-eyed Laura. Despite this reassurance, they hardly achieve the kind of romantic deliverance which audiences look for in idealized, onscreen lovers.
Manero’s professional triumph provides the most compelling theme for Staying Alive. He gets promoted from sideman to star, after the cast’s initial, presumably-gay pick for male lead proves too “mechanical” during rehearsals. Manero almost lets his pride get in the way, however, for things are very tense between him and costar Laura. It’s through the intervention of the show’s director that we learn some fundamentals of the theatrical profession. The director tersely clarifies to Manero that this role is the chance of a lifetime, and that he can maximize the situation by channeling all his conflicting emotions (passion, lust, anger) into the heart of his performance. Manero’s lesson here reflects what Travolta himself had learned in the midst of filming his own star-making vehicle a lustrum beforehand, when he was directed to channel his grief over the recent death of his lover, Diana Hyland, into the scope of his acting, resulting in what many believe to be his finest performance ever in Saturday Night Fever.
Onward, the climactic Satan’s Alley sequence proves spectacular, and the standing ovation which Manero receives whilst hoisting Laura above-head is truly awe inspiring. If they had saved his reconciliation with Jackie until after this performance, then the romantic thread would have seemed more appropriately integrated into the story. It would have also brought this movie even closer to the Rocky formula, which brings us to the director of Staying Alive, Sylvester Stallone.
The Sly’s involvement here precluded any repeat of the urban coarseness and vulgarity found in Saturday Night Fever. The filming of Staying Alive was even marked by conflict between star and director, with Stallone objecting to any raw cursing from the actors. Profanity may have been crucial in authenticating the first film’s portrayal of rough, urban teenagers, but Stallone insisted that Manero’s maturity could predicate the language control necessary to ensure a PG rating (3). The latter’s unorthodox narrative structure of despair/ambition/deliverance is replaced here too by the more populist, Rocky-like arc of action/conflict/triumph.
As for the music featured in Staying Alive, integration has less to do with dance sequences this time, as penman Frank Stallone appears in several scenes as guitarist and co-vocalist in a bar band fronted by Rhodes’ Jackie character. Their duets reflect the smooth, summery sounds of the West Coast soft rock style which ruled the airwaves during the gap between disco and synthpop. Unfortunately, several of these ‘songs’ are mere snippet pieces which don’t exist in full for the soundtrack LP, such as the promising “Waking Up” and “I Hope We Never Change”.
While Frank Stallone’s involvement was obviously down to family ties – and rather lucratively, with the blazing AOR of “Far From Over” climbing to number ten on the Billboard chart – the Bee Gees redux was merely arbitrary, with their five contributions spread sparingly as background filler in the movie. Having already absconded their high-pitched, Fever-era disco in favor of a newfangled, electro-dance pop style on 1981’s unjustly ignored Living Eyes LP, the Bee Gees stepped sideways here, regrouping from solo projects and backup gigs to provide serviceable if unmythic songs for Staying Alive. The best of these, “Someone Belonging to Someone”, is sequenced during the most poignant scene in the film, when Manero takes a long, reflective walk from Manhattan to Brooklyn donning his old white suit – updated with popped lapels, a lavender v-neck and straightened trousers – and passes the now-defunct 2001 Odyssey club in which the action of Fever was set (oh, how times have changed); ultimately arriving home to the only other reoccurring character from the first movie, his mother. The soundtrack to Staying Alive also provided the Bee Gees a minor commercial reprieve with the Top 30 placement of “The Woman In You”, propelled by a four-square, clavinet-like bass-line which almost seemed like an attempt at sounding retro-1977. The promo clip for that song, which features a colorfully outré Rhodes at the helm of a punked-out dance troupe, could even be viewed as a double-reference to the year of Fever.
Speaking of Fever, the epochal strut which opened that film is recapitulated at the close of Staying Alive, complete with the very tune which this time provided namesake. Though befitting in the thematic sense, it still seems trite. A Rocky-like ending, with Manero embracing Jackie in the throng of victory, would have been a far more compelling finale to this movie’s plotline. Whether it was damaging for a 1983 film to grace itself with what had already become a vaunted disco track is still up for conjecture. Nonetheless, Staying Alive did well at the box office, despite being roundly panned by critics. With this jump-start, Travolta further mimicked his banner year of 1978 during 1983 by reteaming with his Grease costar Olivia Newton-John for the amusing misfire Two of a Kind, before his decade-long expulsion to the cultural backwaters following 1985’s belabored Perfect. The 1980s had now settled into their skin, and the 1970s had ceased to be ridiculed, only to be ignored altogether. Despite his best efforts to stay hip, John Travolta would have to wait another decade in order to rise from the fleeting aura which the public had projected onto him.