If nothing else, the new documentary on Frank Stallone highlights the power of really great titles.
First, there’s the title of the documentary itself–Stallone: Frank, That is. It’s just a perfect title, one that’s funny and clever but also sadly accurate, given the story the doc is trying to tell. Director Derek Wayne Johnson paints the picture of Frank Stallone as a multi-talented Renaissance entertainer. He sings. He acts. He boxes, even. And he excels at all of those endeavors– at least, according to the many celebrities who appear in the documentary, everyone from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Talia Shire to Joe Montegna.
But there’s just one little problem– or a little problem in a big, muscular, multi-million dollar frame: Frank’s older brother Sylvester. Now, it’s not as if Sly ever did anything to keep little bro down; in fact, on many occasions during Frank’s career, he tried to help him. But the world apparently only needs one uber-famous Stallone. As the doc points out, Frank never got his due, mostly because he will always be labeled “Rocky’s brother.” You can never just say “Stallone”; you always have to add “Frank, that is.”
And yet, there’s a more inspirational story to tell about Frank Stallone–a story that can be summed up by another title, one to which Frank is inextricably tied. It’s the title of Frank’s top ten hit from 1983– his first, last, and only trip to the upper echelons of the Billboard charts. The song is a slick, awesomely overblown ’80s anthem designed to fire you up while jogging, dancing, jazzercising, or engaging in synchronized swimming (as Martin Short and Harry Shearer demonstrated in a classic 1984 Saturday Night Live skit). It’s a gloriously bombastic celebration of the indomitable human spirit, with a matching fist-pumping title: “Far from Over”.
That’s right; the song is from the soundtrack of Staying Alive, the 1983 sequel to 1977’s disco love letter Saturday Night Fever (John Badham). Both films star John Travolta as Tony Manero, the iconic Brooklyn-bred working-class hero with a flair for dancing (and strutting). Saturday Night Fever is a commercially successful and culturally significant modern classic, which boasts one of the best-selling soundtracks in film history.
Staying Alive, meanwhile, has a less-heralded legacy: the film topped Entertainment Weekly’s 2006 list of “25 Worst Sequels Ever Made”, beating out notorious stinkers such as Caddyshack II, Teen Wolf Two, and Phantom Menace; and it has achieved a perfect Rotten Tomatoes rating— exactly 0%. (Stallone: Frank, That is… documentary got a 50% Tomotaorating, based on eight reviews.)
Now, if you’re like me and you’ve never actually seen Staying Alive but want to get a sense of why it generates so much hate, watch YouTube clips of the film’s climactic dance number— a ghastly menagerie which features laser lights and women in cages and spandex-clad demons whipping John Travolta. (And since I’ve been talking about the importance of the title, the title of the fictional musical at the center of the film pretty much says it all: Satan’s Alley. Seriously….)
But somehow from that hellhole emerged that sweet slice of pop-culture heaven, Frank Stallone’s “Far from Over”– a cornier, less gritty companion piece to “Eye of the Tiger” from Rocky III. (As the documentary suggests, that comparison is not accidental. More on that in a bit.) Like “Eye of the Tiger”, “Far from Over” tells the story of a narrator who has long been held down from reaching his goal yet refuses to give up (“I am down but I am far from over”)– lyrics which seem to echo not only the struggles of Travolta’s Tony Manero but also of Frank Stallone himself.
According to the Stallone: Frank, That Is… documentary, Frank had flirted with fame in the ’70s as the lead singer of the yacht rock band Valentine. (Fun fact: a guitarist who had a cup of coffee in an earlier incarnation of Valentine? John Oates!) Frank even had a bit part in the first Rocky film; during the opening credits, he was the main guy singing “Take You Back” on that Philadelphia street corner.
Unfortunately for Frank, nothing really bit. Even when his brother got his big break with the Rocky franchise, Frank struggled to make a comparable splash in the music biz … until Staying Alive. Writing songs for the sequel to one of the biggest movies of all-time? This was Frank’s big break and the lyrics of “Far from Over” seem to reflect that. (“I’m moving in ‘cause I am getting closer,” he assures us.)
Moreover, Frank may have especially appreciated the Staying Alive opportunity because he almost didn’t get the gig. According to the doc, the studio producing the film originally wanted the Bee Gees, who wrote all those classic disco songs for Saturday Night Fever, to handle all the music, but the brothers Gibb were lukewarm to the idea. (In the end, the Bee Gees contributed five songs.) So the director of Staying Alive quickly reached out to Frank Stallone. See, those two had a past… in that the director was Sylvester Stallone.
So, sure, a little bit of “nepotiz” there… but as his documentary reminds us (over and over), it’s not as if Frank doesn’t have the talent or that “Far from Over” didn’t rock. In fact, even as poor reviews doomed Staying Alive’s potential as a summer blockbuster, the single “Far from Over” stayed alive into the fall, eventually peaking at #10 on the Billboard charts in October 1983. Frank appeared on all the TV shows of the day to promote the single, which eventually earned Grammy and Golden Globe nominations for Frank and his co-writer Vince DiCola (who, incidentally, later composed the music for another Sly Stallone film, 1985’s Rocky IV).
Indeed, in the latter half of 1983, Frank Stallone was white hot, and it seemed his ascent to superstardom was far from over. And then… it was over. Just like that. Frank didn’t win the Grammy or a Golden Globe. His 1985 sophomore album never found an audience, nor did any of his subsequent albums. He contributed dippy songs for other Sylvester Stallone films (“Peace in Our Life” from 1985’s Rambo: First Blood, Part II, for example, and “Bad Nite” from 1987’s Over the Top), but they never went anywhere. Despite his many talents, Frank Stallone became what he swore in the documentary he never wanted to be: a “one-hit-wonder.”
While that’s sad in a way, Stallone: Frank, That Is… doesn’t depict Frank as a tragic figure. Rather, the Frank Stallone seen in the documentary resembles both the never-say-die underdog narrator of Frank’s most famous song and the resilient lug that his big brother made famous. Frank Stallone, the doc assures us, is never going to stay down, as is evident from all the different roads he has traveled upon during his career: as an actor, with small roles in TV and films (such as the Rocky films, Hudson Hawk, Tombstone, and Fred Claus); as a celebrity boxer (in the 1990s, he beat up Geraldo Rivera as part of a fight sponsored by Howard Stern); and of course, as a singer. That’s right: although his time on the Billboard charts was fleeting, Frank still performs big-band songs in front of appreciative audiences. Far from over, indeed.
That sense of resilience is why this documentary works. Sure, it’s fun to hear glowing endorsements of Frank from all those random celebrities. (Hey, it’s Billy Dee Williams! Look, it’s Richie Sambora!) And Frank, who comes off as a genuinely charming and affable guy completely aware of his place in show business, is fun to watch. That the doc– which runs a little over an hour– doesn’t overstay its welcome is not a bad thing.
But in the end, the documentary may succeed because Americans just love stories about people– real or fictional– who claw their way up from nothing to reach a great height. (Of course, we also find perverse pleasure in watching successful people fall once they achieve that great height, but that’s a documentary for another day.) The world didn’t need another Sylvester Stallone. Of course, Frank couldn’t help that. That was out of his control. The only thing he could control is how he reacted in the face of that hard cold truth. As this documentary shows, the 70-plus-year-old Frank Stallone continues to use his talents to entertain audiences.
Frank Stallone hasn’t given up. He’s staying alive.