The term "soaring banality" springs promptly to mind as you watch "Staying Alive," now at area theaters, fling itself to smithereens against the margins of the movie frame. Although a dopey fiasco of a dance musical, "Alive" may nevertheless muddle through as a harmless sort of sequel.
The prototype, of course, was "Saturday Night Fever," a box-office sensation of Christmas 1977. "Alive" attempts to pick up the story of Brooklyn exile Tony Manero, again played by John Travolta, after several years of struggle in Manhattan as an aspiring Broadway dancer.
On his way to a Big Break as the premier hunk in a disco-kinko update of "Dante's Inferno" titled "Satan's Alley" (an inside joke--director-screenwriter Sylvester Stallone had his first auspicious flop with "Paradise Alley"), Tony foolishly two-times his truehearted steady Jackie, a chorus girl and band vocalist played by Cynthia Rhodes, to pursue a conceited British headliner, Laura (Finola Hughes).
There's rarely a moment in the course of this ostensibly dance-oriented show in which a dance movement of any duration can be perceived and appreciated from beginning to end. It's embarrassingly apparent that while the performers are going through strenuous motions of some kind on the stage, the editors have been ordered to "punch up" the footage by imposing a distracting style of pictorial abstraction on the subject matter.
As a result, extreme shifts of camera angle, slow motion, overlapping dissolves and other intrusive editorial devices invariably break up the dance rehearsals or production numbers into maddening fragments. From what you can see, the choreography looks pretty dreadful--the usual convulsive calisthenics of disjointed arm-thrusting, head-flinging and crotch-twitching that pass for erotic urgency in the pathetic S&M dance parlance of the moment--but since the editors are busy obscuring the issue with their own choreographic patterns, who can tell for certain?
When you add the leather-bar-in-Hades "production values" that surround "Satan's Alley" itself--scanty costumes, infernal smoke effects, blinding lighting schemes--the dancing is obscured by yet another layer of camouflage. The first-night audience must be wowed by the show's fireworks spectacle, because it's impossible to believe that a solo dancer's routine could be seen through the bombardment of theatrical special effects.
The fundamental idiocy of it all can't be blamed on John Travolta's obvious limitations as a dancer or on Sylvester Stallone's gaucherie and inexperience as a director of musicals. No, that distinction belongs to contemporary Hollywood for trying to fabricate musicals without bothering to develop authentic musical stars, dancers conspicuously included.
A generation of neglect has produced a ludicrous situation in which Travolta, a dramatic actor of formidable sentimental and comic appeal, has ended up starring in three musicals over the course of his brief career--assuming you want to stretch a point and classify both "Saturday Night Fever" and "Staying Alive" as musicals.
The score is a hodgepodge of songs by the Bee Gees and Frank Stallone (the director's brother), whose tendencies don't, uh, complement one another. Moreover, the score itself is a terrible nag, incessantly summarizing all the feelings that the screenplay should be calculated to express.
Despite the simpery cliche's attached to her role as a loyal pushover, Cynthia Rhodes may have a better showcase than anyone else in "Staying Alive." Although her singing voice betrays a frail sort of huskiness that results in mushy diction as often as touching evocation, Rhodes has a heartfelt approach that does something for "I'm Finding Out the Hard Way," one of the ballads supplied by Frank Stallone, who plays a bit as her singing partner, suggesting a poor guy's Frankie Valli.
Rhodes also looks like a far more graceful dancer than Finola Hughes, the alleged dance star. Combined with her built-in lovability, this superiority tends to invalidate the romantic rivalry on both professional and personal grounds. When Travolta seems to fall for Hughes' shoulder-wiggling routine, evidently the only expressive movement in her repertoire, you can't account for the fascination. It suggests that Tony's standards are less informed than they used to be back at the Bay Ridge disco.
Inevitably, Stallone's tone also intrudes on the identity of Travolta's original character, leaving a protagonist who certainly resembles the original Tony but starts sounding too much like Rocky.