Rocky III trumpeted Sylvester Stallone as a director able to divine bracing imagery out of noise. His style is a rough jumble of telephoto snooping, grimacing close-ups and pop video assembly. In that sense Sly is the perfect choice to chronicle Tony Manero's plunge into fleeting, plastic fame. Staying Alive picks up a couple of years after Saturday Night Fever with Manero struggling to break onto Broadway.
Remembered as a misbegotten sequel, Staying Alive does come on like a toothless retooling of its predecessor, deleting an extended cast and any associated grime in favour of all-consuming exercise. Dancing is no longer Manero's release, it's the totality of his experience. Even serving drinks in some yuppie beer hall, Tony slinks rather than clods, weaving in and around the boozed up dancers like a self-satisfied snake.
As Manero is consumed by dance, so too is Staying Alive. Stallone shoots long, dreamy sequences of practice and repetition. John Travolta's coiled, sinewy body is dwelled upon to a fetishistic degree. Stallone painting an immortal record of this lithe, actualised form, his eye hovering somewhere between a Jane Fonda jazzercise vid and Shinya Tsukamoto's all-consuming love of musculature.
Staying Alive's certificate may be family friendly but Manero is still the exact same arch, emotional manipulator he was in Fever. Everybody is grist. Every encounter, no matter how personal, is transformed into an opportunity to climb. Manero himself seems only dimly aware of this coercion while Stallone's film is not only non-judgemental, it depicts his power over women as a positive.
Manero's emotional abuse isn't just tolerated, it's the ability that facilitates his crowning glory - having successfully fucked his way into a starring role in some absurdly expensive interpretive dance nightmare, Manero hurls his leading lady aside to perform a wholly unsanctioned dance solo. The stage director's objections die in his throat, drowned out by an audience screaming their approval.
Saturday Night Fever promised a positive change in Tony. We left that film assured that there was a chance that he might be able to evolve to the point where women registered as actual people, rather than just something pliant he gets to jab his dick at. Staying Alive has no such pretensions, it doubles down on a venal little lizard that will do or say anything to get his shot at fame.