Saturday Night Fever (1977)

 

Yep, them's that cover
Yep, them's that cover

Genre: Music Drama

Starring: John Travolta (Battlefield EarthGrease), Karen Lynn Gorney

Directed By: John Badham (Short CircuitWarGames)

Overview: A young Italian from Brooklyn spends his weekends dancing at the club. Between working and impressing the ladies, he finds himself interested in Stephanie, hoping to win a dance contest with her as his partner.

Having earlier this week watched John Travolta flit about daintily in Grease as well as watching rugged-tough homosexual antics in Brokeback Mountain, I thought I'd end off this week’s trifecta with a perfect blend of the two. Pulling the DVD – yes it looks like a disco ball - out of its fancy clear case with Tony Manero (John Travolta) doing a pose so classic that I long-ago chose it as one of my Filmsquish banner silhouettes, I popped it in, remembering that there was a time when Disco was the absolute worst thing in the universe. If anyone could reinforce or defeat that in me, it was John Effin’ Travolta. Saturday Night Fever certainly seemed like a happy-go-lucky Romance about a man who draws women in with his Liberace-laden Disco moves, but it turns out to be much, much more. Imagine my surprise when I realized that Saturday Night Fever was no less than a tale about teen angst in a changing society. Suddenly it became a serious drama, and one that forced me to take it seriously.

As the song ‘Stayin’ Alive’ begins, we follow our full-of-himself hero, Tony Manero strutting down the street. “Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk / I'm a woman's man: no time to talk,” sing the Bee Gees. Tony is without a doubt that man, bouncing to the beat like he owns the sidewalk in his up-to-the-minute fashion statement. He works at a local paint store, lives at home with a traditional Italian family and Saturday night is the night of nights for Tony Manero. He poses in the mirror, donning his gold medals, fertility horn and chest hair, the apex of Italian youth, preparing to go out on the town.

Goofy dancing that glues you to your seat
Goofy dancing that glues you to your seat

“You know, I work on my hair a long time… and you hit it… He hits my hair!”
– Tony, after his father slaps him in the head at the dinner table

When he arrives at the club with his friends, it’s obvious he’s not only the leader of the pack amongst his pals, but the Alpha male of the dance floor. He strives to win an upcoming disco dance contest and has a real shot. When he sees Stephanie on the dance floor, Tony does what he can to get her to be his dance partner. That’s the short of it, and that primary plot is really nothing grand, fluff really, but the subplots and the exceptional writing give Saturday Night Fever an undercurrent of truth and angst on the pulse of contemporary society much in the way you’ve seen done in Taxi Driver and Killer of Sheep. Subplot stories include how the gang deals when Joey gets jumped and put in the hospital, the ignored problems of runt friend Bobby C. (Barry Miller), Tony’s ever-praised brother Frank Jr. (Martin Shakar) who shakes up the family when he tells them he’s quitting the priesthood, and Annette (Donna Pescow), a hanger-on and great dancer who pines for Tony.

Thematically, dance keeps the film together. The music is the pervasive foundation, and it works, a pure symbol of Tony’s single-minded passion, and Saturday Night Fever builds up the fantasy perfectly. Tony is the best dancer, is the most good looking. Women beg to dance with him, beg to sleep with him and he treats them all like garbage, and they keep coming back for more. Then when he feels it’s time, the dance floor clears for him to work his magic. The floor, the ceiling, the walls illuminate him with grace and presence and he is righteous in its light and he knows it because it’s true. When Tony’s on the dance floor he becomes this virile Adonis superhero and the camera captures it exquisitely. Musical montages are epic,  beautiful, gaudy, outrageous displays and genuinely exhilarating. Then after the music comes life, which is where Saturday Night Fever sneakily snares you: racial, cultural, sexual and traditional values clash conveying moments of deep drama and a down-to-earth societal grittiness that seeps out of the modern 70s, telling a story of a not-so-perfect reality off the dance floor fantasy.

Ennui and fisticuffs

Performance: 8 Cinematography: 9 Script: 9 Plot: 9 Mood: 9

Overall Rating: 88% (I’m Not Sick, I Swear)
Aftertaste:

Look at that - just today I’ve read about Travolta’s alleged 6-year affair with his male pilot. Interesting how coincidence works. I guess I’ll just call it Grease Brokeback Fever.

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This film really surprised me, in a good way.  I thought it would be a silly little disco movie.  And then BAM!  Social commentary!  Distinct message!  I heartily concur with your review.  Nice write up.

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