Staying Alive

When I was studying ancient philosophy in college my professor gave us a bit of good advice: never write someone's obituary until they are dead. It's never too late for the narrative to change, whether that's Angelina Jolie going from blood-vial-wearing sex-bomb to a special envoy for the U.N.'s refugee program, or Joe Paterno going from hero to villain in the last year of his life, or this movie going from terrible to great in the final act.

The first two thirds of this movie are rough. To start off with, the movie doesn't realize that  John Travolta's character Tony Manero is repugnant. We're supposed to be rooting for him to become the lead in a Broadway show, but his ego is the size of Texas even before anyone's kissing his ass.  At one point early in the movie he congratulates his girlfriend for putting on a good show, then when she leaves to go to the bathroom he turns around and hits on another woman in the same show while she's trying to get cleaned up in her dressing room. And that isn't even the douchiest thing that he does to his poor girlfriend! That guy deserves show biz success like Donald Trump deserves to hit the Powerball jackpot.

But the character flaws are forgiveable; you can still make a strong movie with a flawed protagonist. Making a movie that feels like an extended music video with songs this terrible, on the other hand... Between the scenes of Broadway dancers trying to get ready for their show and the subplot about how Tony's girlfriend might be flirting with one of her bandmates there's a lot of scenes that go on and on with the same song playing all the way through. Even if the songs weren't that overproduced 80's garbage that sounds really cheesy today those scenes would still be painful because they slow the tempo to a crawl. Montages need to be quick and snappy; they shouldn't last the length of a song, especially if the song borders on unlistenable.

However, the finale makes up for all of the suffering caused by the beginning. The musical they've been working on is called Satan's Alley, and it is next level bonkers. It doesn't look like it has a plot or any dialogue, but it does have John Travolta as sexy Jesus dancing with demons in what look like leather gimp suits with the chests cut out. There's dry ice everywhere, a lot of sexy writhing, and a ton of old people in the audience (including Manero's mother) digging it. It should feel dated because there were so many music videos in the early 80s that featured smoke machines and women in cages that they had to devote a whole chapter to it in MTV's oral history, but it's too insane to feel dated. Crazy stays fresh in a way that things that follow conventions don't, and Satan's alley is legitimately crazy.

The real secret to changing your narrative late in the game is that you have to uncork something that was there the whole time but being hidden. Sometimes that means letting out a secret you've been sitting on, or changing which facets of your personality you emphasize to the world at large. And sometimes that means changing from scenes of a dancer behaving like a douchebag to scenes of that douchebag dressed up like divinity thrust dancing against lady Satan on a Broadway stage. If I had known that there was a sexy Jesus coming down the pike I wouldn't have been ready to write Staying Alive's obituary halfway - that guy worked a miracle here, and God bless Him for it.

Winner: Come From Behind Victory For Me

Staying Alive on IMDB