Should I Watch..? 'Saturday Night Fever'
What's the big deal?
Saturday Night Fever is a drama film released in 1977 and is based on a 1976 fabricated article in the New York magazine by Nik Cohn. The film follows a troubled young man growing up amid family and racial tensions in Brooklyn who escapes the realities of his life by being a disco dancing champion. The film brought star John Travolta international recognition and also stars Karen Lynn Gorney and Donna Pescow while the film was directed by John Badham. The film is probably best known for its soundtrack, produced by the Bee Gees, which would not only go on to become one of the biggest selling soundtracks in history but also come to define the disco boom of the Seventies. It would be selected for preservation at the US National Film Registry in 2010 and would be followed by a less successful sequel Staying Alive in 1983.
What's it about?
19-year old Anthony "Tony" Manero is a young Italian-American living with his family in the Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn, New York. Stuck in a dead-end job at a hardware store and feeling increasingly crowded by his family, Tony spends his evenings and weekends at the nearby 2001 Odyssey nightclub where he rules the dance-floor with impeccable moves and irresistible charm. Together with his close friends Double J, Gus, Joey and Bobby C, Tony dreams of somehow escaping Brooklyn and moving to the more respectable Staten Island.
With a dance competition fast approaching, Tony asks his group's mutual acquaintance Annette to partner him - which suits her fine as she is hopelessly in love with Tony. But during rehearsals at the club, Tony's attention is distracted by another dancer, the beautiful Stephanie Mangano who is also a better dancer than Annette. Although she turns down Tony's advances, she agrees to partner him for the competition providing he can remain professional. Can Tony keep his attention on the prize or will his womanising ways get him into deeper trouble?
Anthony "Tony" Manero
Karen Lynn Gorney
Release Date (UK)
23rd March, 1978
18 (PG video rating)
Academy Award Nominations
Best Actor (Travolta)
What's to like?
For people who are only aware of Travolta after his resurgent comeback in Pulp Fiction, this movie is the reason why he is still revered as a cultural icon. This film is about more than the Bee Gees and Travolta is a big reason why - his determined performance is full of swagger and charisma, even though his character is actually fairly unlikable. But during the disco scenes, his poses and dancing became the stuff of legend and it's difficult to imagine any actor throwing themselves into the role as much as he does. I haven't seen an actor so committed to a role since I watched Natalie Portman in Black Swan a few years ago. He might look a bit silly nowadays but at the time, Travolta defined disco largely thanks to this film.
Away from the dancefloor, the movie is a study of contrast - the run-down apartment where the Maneros live is not just cramped and overcrowded but also repressive. Tony's parents (played by Val Bisoglio and Julie Bovasso) loudly disapprove of his lifestyle and constantly badger him to do something with his life so we at least understand his desire to escape. But the narrative takes a shocking and brutal turn that seemingly comes from nowhere and it seems as though this is the only thing that will make Tony change his ways. Outside the bright lights of the 2001 Odyssey club, the world is dark and foreboding and utterly unforgiving. But this isn't immediately obvious so when the story twists, it does genuinely surprise.
- To help get into shape for the film, Travolta ran two miles and danced for three hours every day which caused him to lose some twenty pounds. When it was initially suggested that the dancing scenes be shot close-up, Travolta threatened to walk off unless it was shot full-body.
- The film was originally titled 'Saturday Night' which was shortened from the article title from which the film is based. However, when the Bee Gees submitted their soundtrack, the song Night Fever was felt to best sum the film up. Badham then decided to add the word 'Saturday' to the song's title and make that the film's title.
- Interestingly, the article in question was fabricated by Cohn who admitted making it up around twenty years after the film's release. Brit Cohn had only lived in New York a short while when he submitted the article. While he did visit the disco 2001 Odyssey in real life, his character Vincent (the inspiration for Tony) was based on a Mod in Shepard's Bush, London that Cohn knew in the Sixties.
- Travolta's white polyester suit was sold at auction for $145'000 and was bought by film critic Gene Siskel, who admitted that this was his favourite film and one he'd seen at least seventeen times.
What's not to like?
Unfortunately, the film comes across as a camp, disco version of Rocky with its tale of a plucky hero overcoming his poverty and making the big time. It feels faintly ridiculous but especially these days when disco is so closely associated with the Seventies and this film in particular. Saturday Night Fever has aged about as well as a yogurt, trapped in its own universe which simply doesn't exist any more. It doesn't help that Tony and his friends are unpleasant people to be around, wasting their days using women for their own gratification and dismissing them as quickly as they are found. Frankly, I failed to identify with any of them and felt little in the way of empathy of sympathy for them besides poor Annette who deserves so much better.
As great as Travolta is in the film, the movie does have some shortcomings. His costars feel one dimensional by comparison and the scenes set at home feel awkwardly stereotypical, bloated with cliche and almost comic imitation. The picture also gets overly dark towards the end which doesn't feel like they fit with the film's dizzying lightness in the disco scenes, which are undoubtedly the best in the movie. It reminded me a lot of Travolta's other musical smash of the Seventies Grease - both films are much darker than you may remember and are ultimately overshadowed by the enthusiastic and uplifting soundtrack.
Should I watch it?
While its soundtrack will probably live forever, the film itself is very much a product of its time and can't really exist beyond it. Saturday Night Fever strives to be a heart-warming tale about a bad guy searching for redemption but ultimately comes across as a cautionary tale about a guy whose luck runs out too late for him to take control of his life. My advice is to listen to the tunes and strut like a peacock like nobody is watching - the film's legacy is stronger than the film itself if that makes sense.
Great For: wedding DJs, retro disco nights, disco dancing enthusiasts, Travolta
Not So Great For: younger viewers (although there is a PG version of the film available, it still deals with adult themes), children of the Eighties or later, residents of Brooklyn
What else should I watch?
While this is sadly no classic, it is a landmark picture compared to the camp nonsense on display in Staying Alive which continues Tony's story and his attempts to make it onto Broadway. Bearing little relation to the original film besides a new Bee Gees soundtrack, the film was directed by Sylvester Stallone and to be honest, it's handled about as carefully as you'd expect from the star of the ham-fisted Rambo III. Avoid it at all costs.
The Seventies saw a burst of dance and musical movies that have been embraced by audiences ever ince from the aforementioned Grease to the unparalleled madness of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Both films have enjoyed continued success as stage adaptations but sadly, not every effort broke through to the mainstream. While most people will at least be aware of the psychedelic rock opera Tommy, people might not be familiar with Lisztomania which featured The Who's Roger Daltry playing classical composer Franz Liszt with bundles of pop star pomp and utter madness in a film that, not unsurprisingly, failed to find an audience.
© 2019 Benjamin Cox