By Sarah Bunting
Press Play Contributor
Sequels fail for all sorts of reasons. The writing is crappy, or the casting doesn’t work, or the casting works but the actors phone it in. Some sequels fail because the project isn’t “about” anything but tie-in toys and fulfilling back-end contracts. Sometimes the original movie isn’t good but it did boffo box office thanks to a freak heat wave or because it’s release coincided with some unexpected world event, or it’s just self-contained and there isn’t anything left to say about, say, the Bateses, or police cadets, or killer sharks. Sometimes it’s an unappetizing combo platter of all those reasons just mentioned.
Sometimes it’s nothing more complicated than this: it’s hard to make a movie, period. Writing is hard, acting is hard, raising money is hard, keeping the boom mike out of the shot is hard. This is Ed Wood‘s true legacy to film filmmakers and their unforgiving critics. It’s that the reminder of what can go wrong (because that “what” is unraveling in front of you in every frame). Baked into every great movie, and into all the merely competent ones as well, is the record of a journey from one end of a minefield to the other.
A movie musical is even harder to get right, because now, in addition to writing and acting, you’ve got to worry about proficient (or at least easily disguised) singing and dancing. What’s worse, the suspension of disbelief will now require approximately 14 times as many pulleys as usual, because audiences will believe a dead guy in a hockey mask avenging himself repeatedly on the underdressed and slow-witted teenagers of a given region, as long as he doesn’t warble “Cuts Like A Knife” while tangoing his next victim down a creaky pier. (…For example.) The musical as a genre has its charms, but naturalistic it ain’t, and to overwhelm its native contrivances with catchy tunes and likeable characters is a tall order even once. Twice, don’t hold your breath.
In honor of the “Hollywood Musicals of the 1970s and 1980s” program currently underway at Anthology Film Archives, I revisited the ’80s sequels to a pair of ’70s musicals, sequels that bombed as spectacularly as their eminent parents succeeded: Staying Alive, the sequel to Saturday Night Fever; and Grease 2. What went wrong? Could it have been avoided, or was a debacle inevitable? What, if anything, can we learn from donnybrooks like these?
Staying Alive does have much to teach us, most of it about John Travolta‘s nether regions, “clad” as they are in whisper-light tights for much of the film. It also conveys ideas about acting (namely, that it is not synonymous with screeching, glowering, or merely wearing a headband); Brooklyn accents (evidently it is not, after six years, like riding a bike); and the cocainamatronic zombie corpses of the Bee Gees (ack).
Set six years after Saturday Night Fever, Staying Alive follows Tony Manero (John Travolta, resolutely pretending everything’s fine) into the cutthroat world of modern dance on Broadway. That last clause is everything that’s wrong with the film in a nutshell, but in case you care about trifles like plot and motivation (understand: Staying Alive itself does not), Tony has moved into a shady residence hotel in Manhattan and is trying in vain to make it as a dancer. He goes on depressing auditions; in between, he treats his semi-girlfriend, the too-patient Jackie, like shit, standing her up, going to her show to “support her” and then sleeping with the lead dancer, Laura (the dreadful Finola Hughes, best known as Anna Devane on General Hospital). Tony and Jackie get cast in the chorus of Laura’s next show, “Satan’s Alley,” and Tony semi-stalks the trust-fundie Laura, who was only interested in a one-night thing, while also glaring at Jackie during her bar band gigs because he thinks she’s sleeping with the guitarist (Frank Stallone). Finally, the lead male dancer in the show gets the boot, and Tony gets his chance to headline on the Great White Way. But has he lost himself?
Well, yes — in a modified Rocky picture, to which character, atmosphere, and logic are all incidental. Rocky himself, Sylvester Stallone, directed and wrote the screenplay (with Norman Wexler), which explains the adherence to sports-triumph formula although it doesn’t excuse it, but Stallone’s first and most irremediable mistake was to think that dancing is what made Tony Manero, or the original movie, interesting. Saturday Night Fever isn’t about dance; it’s about all the daily humiliations, inchoate longings, and stunted ambitions that Tony’s mastery of the floor threw into sharper relief. The dark, almost documentary texture of SNF is what makes it compulsively watchable and remarkable today.
That darkness is left behind in Staying Alive, forgotten. Much of the first film is forgotten, in fact, and SA suffers for that. It’s already something of a stretch that Tony would try to make a go of modern dance after an amateur disco victory, but Staying Alive seems to have no memory of how that “victory” went down: Tony feels he and Stephanie have won unfairly thanks to neighborhood racism, so he hands over their trophy, tries to force himself on Stephanie, then winds up on the Verrazano with his friends, where Bobby falls to his death. Oh, and Annette is functionally raped. Tony rides the subway — a seventh-circle experience in the New York City of that time — and finds redemption of a sort at Stephanie’s apartment, but the ending is something of a non-ending, a wordless comment on the bleak prospects of Tony’s life. It didn’t require a sequel; it only required itself.
But a sequel we got, with a barely recognizable version of Tony Manero; the Staying Alive script clearly believes that he’s the same boneheaded but basically well-meaning Tony, but he’s just a collection of goofy single entendres and patchy accent work that happens to exist in the body of John Travolta, not an identifiable person. The music of the original does date it somewhat, but in a time-capsule way, not in the “what were we thinking” way on offer in Staying Alive. The Bee Gees do contribute some “music,” instantly forgettable and lazy, the bottom of the coke bowl gleaming in the morning light, but it’s miles better than the Frank Stallone songsmithery forced upon us by nepotism. Typical of ’80s film tracks, “Far From Over” and others narrate the action we see on screen with the help of moist synthesizer and a great deal of unintimidatingly angry guitar. Saturday Night Fever‘s music was of its time, but also solid pop. Staying Alive‘s is of its time too, in a sense…the bombastic and yet disposable sense.
The drop-off in dancing quality is equally marked, although it’s probably less the quality than the relative watchability at issue. Disco is fun to watch, and it’s legible to civilians; even if you can’t do it yourself, you understand how it is done and you can see the difference between good at disco and not. The tense, self-important jazz hands and jetes of Staying Alive don’t look like anything you haven’t seen extras doing in the background of any Pat Benatar video; a little dry ice and a slo-mo button and it looks a lot more impressive, and no doubt it’s technically difficult — but the viewer is given no insight into whether that’s true, or why. The script tells us that Laura is a Viking of modern rhythms, but mostly we wonder why she doesn’t put that Ren-Faire-length hair up already if she’s so sweaty, or who decided to put John Travolta in a mummy diaper for the big finale. (Wonder no more: it was Mr. Bob Mackie. Obviously.) We also wonder what kind of rubes dress up in tuxes and pay premiere prices for a Broadway show 1) with no singing, 2) that appears to contain only two numbers, 3) that add up to about twelve minutes of show total. Warning. More mummy diaper ahead.
The dancing is unappealing, the music is dull, the writing immediately stamps out any sparks the acting can create, and as a follow-up to a striking story, it’s superfluous. The movie did quite well upon its release, somehow, but it’s no wonder Entertainment Weekly has called it the worst sequel of all time — it fulfills none of the functions of a sequel, or even of a narrative, period, and everyone involved is self-serious to the point of parody, miserable, or both. Staying Alive is often charged with turning out the lights on the Long Dark Night of the Travolta, and while I would actually blame Perfect, SA is a serviceable candidate.
At least Travolta had the sense to avoid the second iteration of Grease, the 1978 ’50s-inspired musical that chronicled the lives and hot-rod loves of a bunch of 35-year-old high-schoolers. Grease didn’t require a sequel either — although I for one would have welcomed an explanation of the ending, even in passing; when the car takes off, where exactly does it go? did Sandy and Danny die? is this an assumption into heaven? does the car land elsewhere, perhaps in a subdivision where they will now make their adult lives? — but it’s possible Travolta just wasn’t invited to participate; in Grease 2, the action resumes several years later. (And…Danny is maybe dead anyway, as I mentioned…?)
The job of starring in a career-ruiner falls to Maxwell Caulfield in the sequel, as English exchange student and Sandy cousin Michael Carrington. Sandy, of course, is Australian, but whatever — Michael comes to Rydell and promptly falls in love with Stephanie (Michelle Pfeiffer, game despite uneven writing that means she kind of has to play three characters), but Stephanie is a Pink Lady who wants nothing to do with his rarefied, bookish ass. Nor, however, is she interested in continuing her relationship with T-Bird Johnny Nogerelli (Adrian Zmed), who…is Adrian Zmed. She does cherish a fantasy of a “Cool Rider” on a motorcycle who will sweep her off her feet, so Michael buys a bike, restores it, and begins lurking around in a helmet and goggles that really do nothing to disguise him; Stephanie falls in love with Mystery Biker Guy and his gay-porn attire, but is still pretty mean to Michael, even though he’s a nice guy who’s helping the T-Birds cheat on their term papers, and even though IT IS OBVIOUSLY THE SAME DUDE. Take a look.
Grease 2 isn’t a complete miscarriage like Staying Alive is. It’s plagued by logic problems like the one above (and the downgrade from Travolta to Zmed, who is capable but has no hope of matching the charisma of the original); the timeline, despite occurring within a school year, is confusing, which allows the three microns of narrative tension that accidentally developed to leak out of the proceedings. Patricia Birch, who choreographed the original, directed the sequel — and nothing else ever again. You’ll understand why five minutes in; the shot composition is consistently baffling, particularly during all-cast dance sequences, with some dancers out of focus and others half offscreen. It’s hard to tell where everyone is in relation to one another, and the overall effect is that they shot the rehearsal by mistake. And the cast is marginally closer in age to their characters this time around, but their relative youth fails to close the significant gap in acting and singing ability.
It wouldn’t have mattered much; none of the songs sticks in the mind at all except the health-class break “Reproduction,” ably led by Tab Hunter as the science teacher. A fetal Christopher McDonald plays Goose, but none of the rest of the players got out of the ’80s intact except Pfeiffer and, to a degree, Caulfield, who despite ending up on The Colbys blames Grease 2 for routing his career trajectory into a gas-station toilet. His wooden line deliveries, cat-in-a-waffle-iron tenor, and marionettish dancing are actually responsible, but I suppose it’s true that the gold lamé cycling suit unzipped to the navel can’t have helped.
It’s not a good story; it’s not good musically; it’s not good. Caulfield is cute in that Unthreatening Boy Weekly way, and Pfeiffer is obviously a future star, but the costuming isn’t era-appropriate, the cinematography is wretched, and it doesn’t answer any questions raised by the original, or give us any insights into the time period. Staying Alive‘s sheer badness is entertaining. Grease 2 just makes the viewer impatient. But it’s a lot closer in quality to its parent, which is the dirty little secret of Grease: it’s not all that great either. It’s got great songs and magnetic leads, and its status as a classic lets us forgive the barrels of corn (and ham) it’s festooned with — but a lot of it is dumb. “Bite the weenie, Riz”? Sandy’s whole transformation at the end comes from watching a drag race, which makes no sense, and neither does the transformation itself, since Danny already fell in love with the good-girl version of her? Stockard Channing as a teenager?
But Grease does its job. We still know all the songs by heart. The plot is a bit bizarre, but the movie works as, among other things, a window into the ’50s nostalgia of the ’70s. The sequel is forced, frenetic, yet also flabby; it has nothing to say, and it can’t make its pictures pretty.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity.com, and has written for Seventeen, New York Magazine, MSNBC.com, Salon, Yahoo!, and others. She’s the chief cook and bottle-washer at TomatoNation.com.