[Note: this is the eighth film in my 2016 Blind Spot series. For a list of the other well-known or well-respected films I’ve already watched or I’m going to be watching for the first time this year, see this post.]
John Badham’s Saturday Night Fever is well known for being one of John Travolta’s two musical star-making turns, although it’s very much the yin to Grease‘s yang. The film’s simple story – written by Norman Wexler and based on an article for New York Magazine by Nik Cohn – concerns the teenager Tony Manero, a kid who lives for the weekends, alleviating the mundanity of his day job and the negativity of a raucous family by entering a more colourful, uplifting world of music and dancing in a Brooklyn disco club. Manero and his various dancing partners move together in sync, running through a series of pre-rehearsed moves, and for just a few hours a week he’s the king of the dancefloor, fawned over by local girls and admired by guys for the flap of his shirt collar, which at one point is a striking deep black contrasting against his bright white suit. After closing time, however, Tony’s back to being a nobody, arguing with his family and hanging around with his immature, homophobic, racist, sexist and violent friends, who seem to constantly drag him into troublesome situations.
The dance sequences and the songs featured here have rightly become iconic, and their cultural significance shouldn’t be underestimated, even if the fashion on display elicits chuckles today. The Bee Gees feature heavily on the soundtrack as performers and writers, as everyone knows, but there are lesser-known gems by MFSB and David Shire in there too, among others. It became the biggest selling soundtrack of all time, with canny marketing types trailing the film with a couple of Bee Gees songs several months before its release. In fact it’s hard to think of a film from the late 1970’s that’s as reliant on its music than this one, even when considering the likes of Grease, All That Jazz and New York, New York; it shows you how important disco was to many New Yorkers at the time, even though there’s a constant sense throughout that a more interesting disco scene lies just a couple of miles away in Manhattan, while history also dictates that a more interesting scene full stop was unfolding at the same time in The Bronx.
Perhaps the film has been misremembered because of all those clips of Travolta throwing shapes, or (more likely) because it was subsequently re-cut and re-released with a PG rating, but the original R/18-rated version is a street movie with plenty of edge, with some unexpected dark moments, most notably a gang-rape (with the victim cruelly described as ‘a cunt’ by Manero after the event). So it’s quite a nasty, downbeat film at times, which has presumably surprised a lot of people over the years who were expecting two hours of saccharine, Bee Gees-sponsored good times (or indeed anyone who initially watched the ‘kid-friendly’ version before later catching the original, uncut ‘adult’ version). Even the ending, which could easily have been structured around a victory in a disco dancing competition or something similar, is decidedly gloomy; there’s just a small amount of hope cast Tony’s way amid a whole lot of rejection, unhappiness and bluster-dampening. Yet some light shines through, and there’s genuine warmth from some of the supporting actors, such as Sam Coppola (Tony’s boss at the paint store) and Donna Pescow (the club girl who has fallen for Tony). Travolta is magnetic throughout, and not just on the dancefloor, though all the good work was undone in Sylvester Stallone’s terrible 1983 sequel Staying Alive.
Directed by: John Badham.
Written by: Norman Wexler.
Starring: John Travolta, Karen Lynn Gorney, Barry Miller, Joseph Cali, Paul Pape, Bruce Ornstein, Donna Pescow, Sam Coppola, Val Bisoglio, Julie Bovasso, Martin Shakar, Lisa Peluso.
Cinematography: Ralf D. Bode.
Editing: David Rawlins.
Music: The Bee Gees / David Shire / Various.
Running Time: 118.