Saturday Night Fever
Dir. John Badham
Premiered December 14, 1977
It starts so simply. A panorama of Brooklyn, a rising beat, and then John Travolta, in his first starring role in a theatrical film, struts to the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive,” a song that only exists because of this movie. It’s the start of a phenomenon, the encapsulation of an entire way of life, based on a story that wasn’t true, full of pain and unhappiness, whose attachment to a short-lived musical genre ensured that it would become an irrelevant joke for the next twenty years.
There’s a lot to unpack there.
Tony Manero (Travolta) is young, poor, and scrapes by at a hardware store in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. At home, he’s a lightning rod for the grievances of his unemployed father (Val Bisoglio) and wailing mother (Julie Bovasso), who now bemoan that their favorite son Frank Jr. (Martin Shakar) is leaving the priesthood. His friends are in a feud of their own making with a local Puerto Rican gang. A selfish, alienated person surrounded by selfish, alienated people, Tony can dream of a better life, but he can’t imagine getting there.
Tony’s only escape is through his neighborhood discotheque, where he is a legend, and women practically throw themselves at him, such as Annette (Donna Pescow), who, nursing her crush on Tony, offers to help him win the $500 prize at a local dance contest. Unfortunately, because Tony is a jackass, he dumps her the moment he sees Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), a prettier, better dancer who also happens to be a pretentious namedropper with aspirations to leave Brooklyn firmly in her past.
This plot synopsis doesn’t get at the real meat of the story. It can’t without spoiling the film, which I don’t want to. All you really need to know is that Saturday Night Fever is a perfect depiction of self-loathing. As much as you can despise Tony’s words and behavior toward his parents, towards women, and towards anyone who isn’t Italian and from Brooklyn, you also feel deeply how he is constantly being worn down by the people around him, whom he allows to control his destiny until it reaches a breaking point. Of all the characters, it seems to be only Fr. Frank Jr. who understands this; although he only appears in Act 2, he’s the hero of the movie for showing Tony the possibility of being his own man.
But don’t let the darkness scare you away; it’s exactly what makes the dancing scenes land. Any economically precarious young man worth his salt finds something nice in life to hold onto. For Tony, that’s dancing. He knows it can’t be his future, whatever that may be, but for the moment it makes him happy, and deservedly so for the skills he presents. Not only is the choreography and Travolta’s natural ability great, but the music, cinematography, editing do their utmost to pump you up and make you want to join in. The energy is infectious. And lest that make the movie sound completely schizophrenic, it is that very contrast that makes the movie relatable, that elevates it from the typical dance movie into a lasting piece of culture.
Signs This Was Made in 1977
Tony rides the RR, one of the double-lettered weekend and shuttle service routes on the New York City subway which ran from 1961 to 1985. He owns the Farrah Fawcett poster with the nipples. He also has a poster of Al Pacino circa Serpico, and takes great amusement when a girl at the disco mistakes him for the considerably older, richer, less pretty movie star. Last of all, He has a poster of Rocky, which seemed appropriate considering the similar DNA of the two pictures, but it’s no coincidence, as Saturday Night Fever was originally meant to be directed by Rocky’s John G. Avildsen.
How Did It Do?
The third most popular film of 1977 worldwide, Saturday Night Fever grossed a whopping $237.1 million against a $3.5 million budget. Interestingly, it was one of the first US blockbusters to make more money overseas than domestically. Critics were thrilled. 87% on RottenTomatoes. Pauline Kael was in love with it. Gene Siskel considered it his favorite movie. English director John Badham, for whom this had been only his second film, became a staple of the 1980s. And John Travolta became the new biggest star in the universe. He was even nominated for an Oscar for his performance. I’m not even going to try to contextualize the soundtrack.
Saturday Night Fever captured the spirit of its age in a way that ensured its success but also doomed it to decades of mockery. Disco flamed out hard within just four years of the film’s release, and both the music and fashions depicted became so severely outré that you’d have thought there was a violent revolution in between. Somehow in this process, the movie got a sequel, Staying Alive, which embarrassingly missed the point and was widely panned as one of the worst sequels ever made. The dopey, outdated style was an easy target for lazy jokes by people who either hadn’t seen the movie or let cultural progress cloud their memory, and the movie wouldn’t regain recognition for its gritty realism and cinematic craftsmanship until the late 1990s. Basically, the same thing that happened to Miami Vice, but a decade earlier.
Next Time: Capricorn One