Sylvester Stallone Directed One Of The Worst Movies Of All Time

Sylvester Stallone directed Staying Alive, the sequel to Saturday Night Fever, which has a 0% on Rotten Tomatoes.

By Nathan Kamal | Published

sylvester stallone
John Travolta in Staying Alive

Sylvester Stallone will always be thought of as an action star, first and foremost. You don’t get to be both Rocky and Rambo without getting typecast a bit. But Sylvester Stallone is a Renaissance man who frequently writes and directs his own movies; although he is rarely considered an auteur in the way that Quentin Tarantino or Spike Lee are, for example, the case can be made. However, one should not make that case with the 1983 film Staying Alive (available on Amazon Prime Video), the Saturday Night Fever sequel co-written and directed by Sylvester Stallone, starring John Travolta, and widely considered one of the worst things ever put to celluloid. 

As a quick refresher, Saturday Night Fever was the 1977 movie that launched John Travolta as a film star and forever made the image of a white three-piece suit a fixture of disco culture. Many people are far more aware of the hit soundtrack, which heavily featured the Bee Gees and became one of the biggest-selling albums of all time, than the movie itself, and are thus surprised to find that rather than being a fun movie about dancing, Saturday Night Fever is actually a gritty urban drama. In the original film, Travolta’s Tony Manero is a working-class Brooklynite with a dead-end job, who lives with his parents and extended family, and spends his free time dancing at a local disco, the only place where he can find some escape from the bleakness of his life.

Saturday Night Fever

Saturday Night Fever does not involve Sylvester Stallone in any capacity (the actor had just launched his own film career with Rocky in 1976), but it does involve racial violence, domestic abuse, suicide, abortion, and John Travolta’s character attempting sexual assault at one point. In short, it’s a dark movie. On the other hand, the belated sequel Staying Alive is a remarkably generic show business story in which Travolta has now relocated from Brooklyn to Manhattan and has pinned all his hopes on being a Broadway dance star.

Staying Alive begins with a garish, incredibly long opening sequence in which we see John Travolta going through an endless series of dance auditions, soundtracked by a rock sound by Sylvester Stallone’s younger brother Frank, because family is important. We eventually see that Travolta is not very successful as a dancer (lorded over by a pre-Robocop Kurtwood Smith), lives in a flophouse that seems far worse than his crowded family house, and works as a waiter. Unlike the first movie, in which he drank heavily and slept around, Travolta is now so dedicated to his dance career that he turns down offers for random sex and alcohol both.

The actual plot of Staying Alive (which was rewritten by Sylvester Stallone when he came on board) is not dissimilar from the plot of most early Tom Cruise movies: a young guy is better at what he does than everyone else, but too much of a maverick, has a brief fall from grace, and then is proved to definitely be better than everyone else. In this case, it is Travolta dancing in a Broadway revue with the dubious name of Satan’s Alley, in which he struggles, learns he needs to do whatever he wants in the name of ambition (from his mother, no less), and then breaks from the choreography to thundering applause.

All this is to say that Staying Alive is not a particularly realistic or imaginative movie. It seems to want to say something deep about the pressures of show business and art, but can’t get in the way of Travolta’s character succeeding no matter what. For all the angry put-downs Tony Manero gets in this movie, there is never any doubt that he’ll come out on top, which makes any lesson meaningless.

Sylvester Stallone was recruited by Paramount Studios after Travolta saw the then-current Rocky III and wanted that kind of hopeful, underdog spirit for his own movie. The DNA of Rocky III is all over Staying Alive, from the propulsive rock ballad to an Italian-American protagonist making it against the odds to a fixation on the male body that sometimes borders on prurient. 

Reportedly, John Travolta did not want Staying Alive to have the same nihilistic tone as Saturday Night Fever, which is kind of the entire theme of the movie. It is telling that Staying Alive is the movie that most people think Saturday Night Fever is, a story of a striver making his way to success through his love of dance, soundtracked by Australia’s best male harmony group. However, in the first movie, Travolta’s love for dance was nothing but a temporary escape from the rest of his life, not his actual passion. The movie ends with him giving away the trophy from the big dance contest not just because he felt someone deserved it more, but because the entire idea of dancing as an escape has become small and hollow.

Staying Alive was a massive commercial hit when it was released, grossing $127 million on a $22 million budget. That should be no surprise considering both Travolta and Sylvester Stallone were at the height of their powers at the time, releasing enormous movies like First Blood, Cobra, Grease, and Urban Cowboy all in the same five-year span. However, critics savaged it and it currently stands as the oldest movie to have an absolute zero percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Watch it and you’ll see why.