Kurt & Sly Week: Stallone Whips Travolta into Shape with 1983’s “Staying Alive”

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I’m not even gonna bother coming up with a joke for this.

Kevin: We kicked off our Kurt & Sly appreciation week – in honor of the two stars reuniting in this weekend’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” – with a tribute to Russell’s Hall of Fame pre-game speech in “Miracle.” Today we put the spotlight not on Stallone the movie star, but Stallone the auteur who has directed nine films and written more than 20, most of which fit squarely within his tough guy image (including directing four “Rocky” sequels, one “Rambo,” and one “Expendables”). But there’s one movie that stands apart as the biggest anomaly on his filmmaking resume: 1983’s “Saturday Night Fever” sequel “Staying Alive”:

The film takes John Travolta’s character Tony Manero out of Brooklyn and into Manhattan, where he is struggling to make it as a Broadway dancer while dating sweet fellow dancer Jackie (Cynthia Rhodes). Temptation arises in the form of conniving Broadway star Laura (Finola Hughes), who seduces Manero and toys with his affections, while also getting him a role as a backup in her upcoming show “Satan’s Alley.” Eventually Manero realizes the error of his ways, wins Jackie back, and steps into the lead role of the show, leading to a climax that gives us a glimpse of what Stallone’s idea of a Broadway musical would look like:

So yeah, on paper there is nothing here that you would normally associate with a typical Stallone flick. For one thing, “Staying Alive” is the only film he directed but didn’t star in, instead making a Hitchcock-style cameo as an awesomely attired guy who passes Travolta on the street:

I also doubt anyone who came across this movie completely cold could watch this opening credits montage (scored to the Billboard Top 10 hit “Far from Over” by Sly’s brother Frank) and would think that this is a movie that Sylvester Stallone would even watch, much less direct:

Although speaking of montages, if there is one thing that gives “Staying Alive” away as a Sylvester Stallone film, it’s the ubiquitous use of one Sly’s favorite filmmaking techniques: the montage scored to a then-contemporary hit song. I know people joke that “Rocky IV” is like 70 percent montages, but in the case of “Staying Alive” that might actually be true. As far as Sly is concerned, there has never been a human emotion he couldn’t convey with a bunch of scenes edited together over some dated but catchy ‘80s rock.

For instance, we have Manero and Laura falling in love to the strains of the Bee Gees’ “I Love You Too Much”:

He also establishes Jackie as a singer as well (with Frank Stallone backing her up on guitar and vocals) …

… So that later she can express how Manero has broken her heart through song in “Finding Out the Hard Way,” in which she “keeps reaching out/but coming up empty-handed.” (Note she also uses the phrase “islands in the stream,” which apparently was a popular metaphor in songs back then):

And when it’s time to show that Manero and Jackie are ready to renew their love, why subject us to some boring scenes where they talk about their feelings when you can express it during a dance montage set to “Never Gonna Give You Up,” sung by Cynthia Rhodes and Frank Stallone:

Once again, on paper there’s not a lot here you would associate with Sylvester Stallone, but it’s not like he was some director gun for hire; he co-wrote the film as well, so obviously this story meant something to him. Perhaps he saw a bit of himself in the character of Tony Manero, a lower-class Italian kid from New York trying to break into showbiz, just as Stallone was at one time. Looking at it from that angle, making Manero a wannabe Broadway star (despite that being really out of character for the Manero portrayed in “Saturday Night Fever”) might be Stallone’s way of using the sequel to tell a version of his early days as well.

For one thing, early in the film Manero pitches himself for any kind of acting or modeling work to several talent agents, who rather improbably want nothing to do with this tall good-looking guy. But considering Stallone famously had to fight the studios who wanted to make his script for “Rocky” but with a more conventional Hollywood lead, it’s not hard to imagine this as a depiction of what the real-life Sly had to endure back in the day. (Whether or not he had to sleep with any female stars to get his big break is something you’ll have to ask the man himself though.)

We also perhaps get a few other glimpses into Sly’s psyche. For one thing, while sitting down with his loving but overbearing Italian mother (shades of Sly’s real-life mom, late astrologer/G.L.O.W. aficionado Jackie Stallone?), Manero apologizes for rubbing people the wrong way back in Brooklyn, to which his mother tells him he should never apologize because that attitude got him out of the neighborhood. “I’ve always been this bastard, but it’s all right because it comes naturally?,” Manero responds, as blatant an assertion of the virtues of selfishness as anything you’ll find in Ayn Rand.

Among the many songs in the movie, Stallone is apparently a fan of “Look Out for Number One” by Tommy Faragher, since it comes up twice in the film. Perhaps lyrics such as “You gotta work a little harder than the next guy/Be a little smarter if you wanna survive/You gotta move a little faster than the last time/Know just what you’re after and never look behind” have a special resonance for Sly:

We also perhaps get a little glimpse into the brotherly dynamic between Sly and Frank. On one hand, Sly put a number of Frank’s songs in the film and also cast him as a romantic foil for Jackie’s attention. On the other hand he seems to have some fun at his little brother’s expense by making him the butt of a number of put-downs by Manero: “Everybody in the world knows you can’t trust a guy who plays rhythm guitar.” “Underneath them curls is a pervert.” “He looks like some demented paratrooper.”

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Yeah I can see it.

The two also have by far my favorite exchange in the film:

Frank Stallone: “Is everything all right?”

Travolta: “Everything is fine, she’s in good hands.”

Stallone: “Hey what are you Allstate pal?”

Travolta: “Yeah you want disability?”

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Ha ha, good one Manero!

But while “Staying Alive” may have been a more personal movie project for Sly than people realized, apparently he also saw Travolta as a project in need of work himself. In our write-up on some Stallone news back in January, TGD noted that Sly’s mentorship came at just the right time for Travolta, as the former ‘70s star was in need of both a career and an emotional boost after flops like “Blow Out.”

Well it turns out we were right, as this 1983 Geraldo Rivera interview with the two stars proves. Just listen to Travolta himself explain the state he was in: “Physically I wasn’t looking good or feeling good … I was overweight and out of shape, I had bad scalp problems, my skin was drying up. I said ‘Who wants me in a movie?’” Well Stallone did, and he took a star who was feeling over the hill at age 27 and broke him out of his slump:

(It should be noted that this “Dallas” remake Geraldo mentions at the beginning never came together. Also he strangely says that Stallone was also at a low point in his career at the time, even though he was actually coming off two big hits with “Rocky III” and “First Blood.”)

In the real-life relationship between Stallone and Travolta during filming, it’s not hard to see the parallels between the “Rocky” films, except in this case with Travolta as the underdog Rocky and Stallone as beloved trainer Mickey (and maybe a little Apollo from “Rocky III”). Maybe instead of “Staying Alive” the two should have made a movie entirely made up of training montages showing how Sly turned Travolta into this lean mean confident machine:

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Not sure what Sly did about his scalp problems though.

And it worked, as even though “Staying Alive” is not exactly fondly remembered (and I say screw that, this movie is a blast), it gave Travolta the box office hit he needed and proved that Stallone can touch people’s lives both off and on the screen. Unfortunately Travolta may have taken the whole workout thing a little too far, as it lead him to star in “Perfect,” in which he plays a Rolling Stone reporter out to blow the lid off the new health club craze sweeping America. The result wasn’t pretty:

Post Script: Here are a few behind-the scenes photos of director Stallone putting his protégé Travolta through his paces on the set of “Staying Alive”:

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6 thoughts on “Kurt & Sly Week: Stallone Whips Travolta into Shape with 1983’s “Staying Alive”

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  4. Pingback: Kurt and Sly Week: The Round Table on the Vintage ‘80s Awesomeness of “Tango & Cash” | Tough Guy Digest

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