Matchup of the Day: Billy Elliot vs. Staying Alive
This time around, our matchup of the day involves movies about two guys dancing their way to self-realization. Billy Elliot was nominated for a slew of awards and adapted into a musical with music by Elton John. Staying Alive, the sequel to 1977’s Saturday Night Fever, was directed by Sylvester Stallone and met with critical disapproval.
The primary conflict in Billy Elliot is that the title character has dancing in his soul, but lives in a working class English town where boxing is the preferred activity for a young male. There’s one scene in the film where Billy is dancing exuberantly through the streets when he abruptly runs into a dead end. That is likely symbolic of the discrimination he faces. A quick Google search for “male ballet dancers” lead to the article “Manly Ballet… 5 Misconceptions About Male Ballet Dancers“. In it, the author explains that ballet is a very strenuous and demanding art form. Probably the best example given is “While baseball players are coordinating catches, male ballet dancers are coordinating catching women.” That says it all, really. Anyway, Billy ends up taking clandestine ballet classes with the money his father gives him for boxing lessons. This doesn’t go over well when his father first discovers the deception. When he witnesses his son’s dedication and grace, though, he abandons his prejudices.
In Staying Alive, John Travolta’s masculinity isn’t in question. The conflict appears to be similar to his problem in Saturday Night Fever – learning how to treat the ladies. This time around, Travolta is striving to be a successful dancer in Manhattan. He has a sweet, good-natured lady friend, Jackie, who he strings along while eyeballing other women. Travolta meets his match when he encounters a cynical female dancer, Laura, who uses him as readily as he uses Jackie. It appears that Laura is supposed to represent Evil, or Travolta’s base desires, while Jackie is supposed to represent Good, or true love, or something. This is played out in the bizarre Broadway dance extravaganza, “Satan’s Alley” that takes up the last twenty minutes or so of the film. There’s one part where a bunch of guys dressed in leather wielding whips capture Travolta and bring him before Laura, who is dressed in red and scowling. Travolta breaks free from his bonds and proceeds to perform a dazzling, unscripted solo dance number. The audience goes wild. He later makes up with Jackie and triumphantly struts down the street.
The ending of Billy Elliot is not quite as spectacular, but Billy does make it into a ballet school and goes on to perform in Swan Lake. His father sits in the audience filled with emotional pride. It’s a more satisfying conclusion. This article labels Travolta as the villain of Staying Alive, which is certainly true as far as being his own worst enemy. But maybe there is more to it than that. Maybe Laura isn’t really any worse than him, and his climactic strut has more sinister implications.