Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Better Off Dead...

In 1977, the nation was swept over by the phenomenally successful film Saturday Night Fever, a gritty, electrifying drama about a young Brooklyn guy who dances his cares away on an illuminated nightclub floor, dreaming of escaping his humdrum existence as a working class lug. The soundtrack remains one of the most popular movie soundtracks ever produced (featuring now-classic disco songs from The Bee Gees.) The film was released with an R-rating, but screaming youngsters who wanted to watch star John Travolta boogie to the songs they had worn out on their LPs of the music finally led the studio to issue a PG version that was relieved of some of the foul language and sexuality the original version contained.

In the wake of this, talk eventually began to brew of a sequel. Though sequels were hardly a new concept at the time, they weren’t as robotically automatic as they are today, with even the most middling piece of crap warranting a sequel, often before the original film has even opened in a theater! A little more than five years after Saturday Night Fever, the projected sequel somehow found its way into the hands of that master of all thing Terpsichorean, the genius behind so many musical films, Mr. Sylvester Stallone.

Dubbed Staying Alive (the name of one of the most iconic numbers from the first film), the story took place five years after Fever. Travolta is now a cocktail waiter living in Manhattan, striving to get his first break in a Broadway show. Auditioning feverishly, he fills the rest of his time teaching rudimentary dancing to beginners and canoodling with pretty Cynthia Rhodes, a dancer in her own right who’s currently working in a Broadway production. He also has had liaisons with a couple of swinging chicks who like taking him on all at once. Hilariously, he turns them down for a repeat performance with a heavily accented, “You two paahty too haahd.”
In initial outlines and drafts of the script, the memorable friends and girlfriends from the first film appeared in some way or another in the sequel. Eventually, Stallone (who co-wrote the movie) whittled all of them out, with nary a mention, except for Travolta’s mother, played again by Julie Bovasso. Primarily appearing in just one key scene, in Travolta’s parent’s house in the old Brooklyn neighborhood, she keeps offering John a piece of the pie that she “made special” as if he won’t eat and when he finally gives in, the camera reveals that it’s the final slice!! Are you seriously telling me he showed up at night, she baked the pie that morning and the two of them ate all of it after lunch?! A dancer??

Anyway, the film details Travolta’s journey towards landing a role in a Broadway play and what better way to do it than to cheat on his quasi-girlfriend Rhodes with the star of the show she’s in. He finagles his way up to crisply British Finola Hughes’ dressing room and lays on his charm, which is not necessarily appreciated by her, at least at first. He manages to woo her (in a montage paired with one of the many, many songs on the soundtrack, some of which are by the Bee Gees, but quite a few that are not) and they end up in her massive bed. (This being a firmly PG-rated film, what few love scenes there are are beyond tame.)
John becomes hung up on Miss Hughes even though she is most often an unmitigated bitch. He continuously stands up or otherwise kicks to the curb the sweet-natured and supportive Rhodes, making his character a less than inspiring one. He is invited to a posh soiree at Hughes’ high-rise apartment and, for this occasion, whips out what is supposed to be the famous white suit he wore in Fever! It’s been in a dry cleaner bag with the original black shirt for five years. He bows to the fact that it is now 1983 and pairs the suit instead with a blue v-neck t-shirt. Roger Ebert bought the original suit at auction somewhere along the way (I think he used to wear it Easter Sundays over a Cosby sweater), but, in any case, I highly doubt that the suit used here is truly the original.

While Travolta continues to jilt Rhodes, she starts to make time with the guitarist of a band she sings with late at night. (It’s actually more a platonic relationship, perhaps to make Travolta jealous.) And who is this dark-haired, dark-eyed macho man? Why it’s Sylvester Stallone’s younger brother Frank, who was somehow picked from all the available artists in the world to write a raft of songs for this project. I wonder how he managed it! Truth be known, I actually like Frank’s songs in this movie very much. I, as I’ve stated before, have less than zero taste, though. I recall one of the numbers being used in a hilarious Saturday Night Live filmed sketch about two male synchronized swimmers that starred Martin Short and Harry Shearer.

Finally, Hughes, Travolta and Rhodes all wind up in a Broadway musical together, Satan’s Alley. The show is in no way like anyone could ever (or would ever!) see in the world of musical theatre. There’s practically no plot, costume changes are minimal at best (mostly consisting of people either changing hair or taking a tad more of his or her already abbreviated costuming off!), there is no dialogue and the music is sung by someone nowhere near the playing area! A “concept musical” in the worst sense of the word, people constantly gyrate, crawl, pose and prowl around with little or no purpose. In short, it’s an obnoxious pile of steaming drek punctuated by some hysterically indulgent Bob Mackie costumes.

Now, I admit that my experience with Broadway musical is quite limited (especially with regards to the chorus!), but isn’t there usually some sort of attempt to keep dancers of a somewhat uniform height? Maybe I’m thinking solely of The Rockettes. At 6’2”, Travolta appears to tower over the rest of the dancers and would seem to stand out in the ensemble for all the wrong reasons. Maybe I’m too stuck in 1953.

As the show is in rehearsal, Hughes’ costar, Charles Ward, is deemed inadequate to perform the incredibly strong and sultry moves of this major piece of dance art. It can be read that the show calls for a masculinity and heterosexuality that Ward cannot deliver, resulting in some mild gay bashing. (In case there’s one senile, old audience member at the movie theater who doesn’t realize what a homo is, the character has frosted hair, a deep tan, ivory teeth and a purple unitard!) The show’s director, Steve Inwood, decides to give Travolta a shot (not realizing that he has coerced Rhodes into working on it until all hours in a bid to become the show’s star!)

One false start leads to a memorably amusing tantrum from Hughes when her head (with its ratty mane of unruly hair) gets caught in John’s crotch! However, if you think Travolta doesn’t land the gig and wow everyone, resulting in a huge triumph, I feel bad that you’ve never seen a movie. Not content to now be playing the lead in a (ghastly) Broadway production, he improvises while he’s out there and turns the whole thing into a life-changing event. Hughes reaction to one of his new ideas is to scratch him violently across the temple! In one of the few nods to the first film, he decides to celebrate his success by strutting down the street just the way he did in the opening sequence of Fever.

Then-hot (in terms of box office cred) Sylvester Stallone, whose storyline here contains every hoary cliché imaginable and comes off at times like a remake of Rocky, but in tights instead of trunks, or a shiny retread of 42nd Street, makes a very brief cameo appearance in the film. He bumps into Travolta on the street and turns around for a nanosecond. Approached to play the show’s director, he felt that he had no reason to be in the film because the film was him. His essence was emanating from every square frame of celluloid. (One hopes that he shared this kernel of information before the movie opened to savage reviews, Razzie nominations and audiences seething in their seats at the vomitously rotten final product!)

If one didn’t know better (but do we?), it could be interpreted that somehow Stallone set out to deliberately bury the film career of John Travolta forever! It’s bad enough that he provided him with a fairly unsympathetic character, but he then saddled him with some of the most preposterous visual scenarios while garbed in instantaneously dated getups. Over the years, Travolta has been accused of being gay, the rumors coming in and going out like the tide depending on the season. Surely, this motion picture lent no aid to his heterosexual credibility!

He’d been off the screen for two years, a lot of it in preparation for this film, and the results were admittedly stunning. His body was a work of art and was exploited over and over in the ads. Also, no one can deny the astonishing amount of work that he put into his dance sequences. He dances a TON in this film and this is just the small percentage of snippets and takes that made it into the final cut! Countless hours of exercise and rehearsal preceded the filming. It’s just that the choreography is often so garish, ridiculous and pretentious! This is the type of flick (see also The Apple and Can’t Stop the Music) that people recall when they think about how tastelessly over-the-top the 80s were. His other film of 1983 also tried to dip into the well of nostalgia by pairing him with his old Grease costar Olivia Newton-John. Two of a Kind sank even more swiftly than Staying Alive! Completing the career-killing trifecta was 1985’s workout-oriented Perfect, though he would eventually make a stunning mid-90s comeback, headed by Pulp Fiction.

Hughes joined the daytime soap General Hospital this same year and enjoyed a lengthy stay. A talented dancer (she had previously been in the ensemble of The Apple and worked in the Joan Collins ballet-oriented howler Nutcracker), she for some reason comes to rehearsals in the movie with her long, unruly hair all over the place, held up with impractical accessories that would be unlikely to withstand all the grueling whirls and undulations of the choreography. She currently appears on an infomercial, speaking about the years of damage she did to her hair with shampoo. She’s so skinny in the movie that her bones show through sometimes (it must be said, too, that sometimes she looks just as “hung” in her leotard as John does! Not sure what was going on there…)
Rhodes left the biz not too long after this to concentrate on being a wife to Richard Marx and a mother to their children. She was a pleasant, if unspectacular, screen presence and a decent singer and dancer in her own right. I always have odd feelings watching her because she is a dead ringer for my sister. Speaking of my sister, she had Rhodes exact hairstyle and color in this film and I recall her making me take her to see this movie the weekend it opened. She was fourteen and I was sixteen and I remember pretending like I wasn’t that interested in it and acting as if I weren’t (as every gay boy in the world who saw this was!) craning to look under John’s little grey skirtlet to see what was going on down there! I really have never found Travolta attractive at all, but he was certainly very striking at this time in his life.

As for Stallone, he followed this gem up with the equally atrocious comedy Rhinestone, which costarred Miss Dolly Parton. Though the gigantic box office success Rambo: First Blood Part II was just around the corner from that, his career was already heading into a downward spiral of mediocrity that would see him returning over and over to the Rocky and Rambo franchises with an occasional attempt at something else (or, at times, just variations, such as Rocky driving a truck or Rambo on a motorcycle, etc…) People are still scratching their heads trying to figure out what he was doing directing this film (and why he decided to chuck nearly every aspect that made the original so compelling to millions of people.) Travolta fought constantly with Fever director John Badham, but it ended up with a terrific end result. He claims that Stallone was his favorite director ever because Sly made him look the best onscreen. Ummm. What about his performance (and reputation?!?!) God knows Travolta is still living this one down. Entertainment Weekly chose it as the #1 Worst Sequel Ever. John and Sly briefly considered pairing up together in Rambo: First Blood Part II, but Stallone decided the project would be better off if it just starred himself… Maybe he wanted to be the only one to wear a headband?

Oh, and in another personal aside that means nothing, one of the primary songs has the lyric “never a net, under the wire” but a recurring (and unfunny) joke has me always pretending to hear it as “never Annette, under the wire” and asking the question, “Who the hell is Annette??” And, finally, during the 1985 Miss America Pageant, the one Vanessa Williams temporarily won, former crown-holder Susan Powell did a splashy song and dance to this same song (called So Close to the Fire) that managed to do the impossible in that it was even tackier and cheesier than the rendition in the film Staying Alive! Surrounded by unsynchronized dancers as she prowled around with the support section of her pantyhose showing through her French cut costume, she used her opera training to wail out a spotlight-shattering note. When it was all over, I turned to my friend and said, “Okay, but I still don’t know who the hell Annette is…..”


TJB said...

I have never seen this infamous slice of cheese, and now, after reading your hilarious (really...I was laughing out loud) review... well, I have an even stronger desire to avoid it. I did, however, LOVE the photos! I feel like blowing up a larger-than-life size copy of the one of Miss Travolta in mid-leap (wearing the baby blue skivvies) and hanging it in front of the Scientology headquarters...

Poseidon3 said...

Oh, PLEASE do yourself a favor (or a disservice if you've been bad and need to be punished) and watch this some time. It's only 96 minutes long and the music and the colors are hypnotic! (What am I, autistic now?) I hope I didn't wrongly suggest that I don't delight in viewing it! It's craptabulous!

Rob said...

Craptabulous? It's fantast-shit! (Dreaming of the day you do a pic-heavy post about Perfect- The work-out scene at the end seems included only to show his hardon as he thrusts and thrusts and thrusts his hips to the ceiling) And yet...I find him utterly unappealing. This movie really is insane-how much coke was the producer (well OK, everyone involved)doing?! Wasn't the nice girl (AKA Mrs. Richard Marx)in the Roseanna video? She was cute!

vinniepop said...

I actually met Cynthia Rhodes in 1984 when she was filming some scenes for the movie Runaway not too far from my house. While everyone in the neighbourhood was concerned with trying to get a glimpse of her co-stars (Tom Selleck and Gene Simmons) I parked myself outside the makeup trailer, since I saw through the window that Ms. Rhodes was inside (I actually had to get on the hood of a car to see through the window since I hadn't hit my growth spurt yet). When she finally emerged, I approached her for her autograph and she was taken aback and genuinely stunned. "Me? You want MY autograph?" She then did a dramatic fainting swoon into her assistant, who got into the act by shouting "Medic - we need a medic over here!". Then with giddy laughter she graciously signed her autograph (inscribing "I love you FOREVER - thank you!") and then posed for a picture with me before she continued to the set.

Since Staying Alive had already fizzled and the only other thing she had done was a small role in Flashdance (and Toto's "Rosanna" video, as mentioned above), her star wasn't really on the rise at that time. And with everyone going gaga over Selleck she probably just figured no one would even notice her, let alone know who she was. So I guess when I approached her (and referenced her Flashdance role) it just made her really happy to be recognized and in turn gave me a chance to see a sweet, "real" side to a celebrity. And funny thing, a few years later she was on a local (Vancouver) radio show promoting Dirty Dancing and I managed to get through on the call line, speak to her again and tell her who I was - and she was the same, sweet, down-to-earth person all over again. Truly a class act.

(*whew* - sorry, didn't realize what an essay I was writing!)

Poseidon3 said...

>>(*whew* - sorry, didn't realize what an essay I was writing!)<<

Doesn't matter in the slightest! I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your firsthand encounter with Ms. Rhodes and am delighted that she was so nice and down to earth (as I would have suspected.) Thanks!

1AceGuy said...

Wow - just stumbled on your blog. I actually saw "Staying Alive" not too long ago on Netflix. I'm a big ABC soap fan, and I had no idea that Finola Hughes was in it. Yes, it was a turkey, in more ways than one, but the only reason I gave it 5 stars was because of Finola Hughes. I also had no idea that she was a dancer. Yes, if you can sit through this, it is worth one watch -- seeing Finola Hughes was fantastic, and she was the only reason I gave the movie a 5. Certainly, Travolta was stunning, and he was rumored to have hit on Stallone, who was neither bi nor interested...