Not many movies can lay claim to being a genuine cultural phenomenon. There are certainly hit movies-the ones that make a lot of money at the box office and stir a lot of initial interest-but even the biggest of those often slide from memory after a few years, replaced by the next big thing. They also tend to lack cross-over impact, meaning they don't alter much outside of an opening weekend box office record or a studio marketing strategy. True cultural phenomena reach far beyond the multiplex, tying together multiple strands of popular and political culture and becoming symbols of an era. There aren't many of these, but John Badham's Saturday Night Fever is without doubt one of the most memorable.
Released in 1977, the same year as George Lucas's watershed blockbuster Star Wars, Saturday Night Fever encapsulated in perfect detail the surface attitudes, fashions, and musical stylings of the disco era, as well as the churning subtext of a frazzled national ethos in transition. A post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, pre-Reagan-era vehicle for exploding star John Travolta (still known primarily as Vinnie Barbarino from the television series Welcome Back, Kotter), it situated its disco balls and illuminated dance floors against Jimmy Carter's cultural malaise, positing the former as a temporary escape from the latter. The film is a canny bridge between the gritty, dark, antiheroic films of the 1970s and the just-around-corner Hollywood resurgence of hard-body heroes, high-concept blockbusters, and reinvigorated national sentiment, not to mention gleefully vulgar, teen-centric comedies like National Lampoon's Animal House (1978), Porky's (1981), and Sixteen Candles (1984), for which Saturday Night Fever (along with George Lucas's American Graffiti four years earlier) served as a kind of forerunner. (Interesting, to capitalize on Grease's popularity a year later, Paramount re-edited Saturday Night Fever to earn a PG rating and more box office receipts from all the under-17 kids who couldn't see it during its initial theatrical run.)
When people think of Saturday Night Fever, the first thing they think of is the music-the jaunty, pulsating, rhythmic beats of the Bee Gees' half-dozen hit songs that came to define that particular moment. Yet, the music and the white disco suits and the platform shoes are a thin veneer over the story's fundamentally despondent nature; it is, after all, a work of intense disillusionment whose slightly optimistic epilogue is minor salve for all the violence, anger, and frustration that fills the rest of the narrative (just listen to the lyrics to "Stayin' Alive," where the city is breaking and everyone is shaking). The script was penned by Norman Wexler, who had previously written John G. Avildsen's violent anti-establishment drama Joe (1970) and Sidney Lumet's corrupt police drama Serpico (1973) (he also wrote the slavery potboilers Mandingo from 1975 and Drum from 1976, but the less said about those, the better). Wexler drew his material from a New York Magazine article by British rock critic Nik Cohn titled "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night," which two decades later was revealed to be a complete fiction. Nevertheless, it had the feel of authenticity (which is why no one ever thought to question its veracity), and its story of young Brooklynites caught in blue-collar purgatory finding escape in the bright, flashing lights of a local discotheque was too compelling to resist.
The story revolves around 19-year-old Tony Manero (Travolta), who works in a hardware store all week to make just enough money to help support his bitter out-of-work father (Bruce Ornstein) and mother (Julie Bovasso), with whom he still lives in the Bay Ridge neighborhood in Brooklyn where he grew up, and still have enough left over to fund one night each weekend at 2001 Odyssey, the local disco where he is, as others note, the king. In real life, Tony is like a lot of other '70s movie protagonists, a fundamental loser who is struggling to make it in life, but at night on the dance floor, he becomes a kind of god, with the other dancers parting like the Red Sea to make room for his latest moves. Travolta was already a star when the film was in production (there are lots of stories of the shoot being mobbed by screaming teens), but by the time its theatrical run was over, he was certifiably iconic.
Tony spends most of his time hanging out with the same group of friends he's probably hung around with since grade school: Joey (Joseph Cali), Bobby C. (Barry Miller), and Double J. (Paul Pape). He is dismissive of Annette (Donna Pescow), a local girl who pines for him so desperately that it enters the realm of the pathetic (and eventually the tragic), instead setting his sights on Stephanie Mangano (Karen Lynn Gorney), a dancer who is several years his senior and whose aspirations to social significance (she works in a talent agency and like to name-drop) clash with Tony's unsophisticated demeanor and lack of ambition. There is also a subplot involving Tony's older brother Frank (Martin Shakar), whose decision to leave the priesthood sends shockwaves through his strongly Italian-Catholic family.
In an interview at the time of the film's release, Travolta noted, "When you talk to kids who've seen it many times, you discover they don't even like the story," because to them, "the movie is a concert." That love of the film's music translated into record-breaking sales of the double-LP soundtrack, which sold so many copies that it eventually became the first album to earn more than the movie from which it came. It would seem that the discord between the dark, socially aware, and largely despairing narrative and the flashy dance sequences inside the disco would produce a film that is fundamentally at odds with itself, but director John Badham merges them quite seamlessly by emphasizing the neon space inside the 2001 Odyssey as a kind of fantasy world of escape. The film functions, then, very much like a traditional musical, with the musical sequences offering a fantastical alternative to the workaday world, even if characters don't break out into diegetic singing. The music, though, is everywhere, and when it kicks in, you know that Tony is entering the world in which he reigns, yet it offers him no real advancement; his kingdom and his power evaporate with the morning light, and he's just another aimless guy again. Frank encourages him to do something with his dancing, but Tony can't imagine what that might be beyond winning dance contests and seducing women. It's not hard to see how kids in the late '70s could divorce the film's two parts from each, ignoring the gritty narrative and losing themselves in the disco inferno, but it's a much richer, more evocative film when those two halves are seen as fundamentally integrated, with the neon dance-floor glow a temporary respite from life's harsher realities.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Paramount Home Entertainment
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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