SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, 1977
Directed by John Badham
Starring: John Travolta, Karen Lynn Gorney, Barry Miller, Paul Pape and Donna Pescow
Review by Jayvibha Vaidya
Tony Manero, a tough kid from Brooklyn lives for Saturday nights when he can indulge in his favourite things: drugs, women and disco. But when he meets a woman who challenges his moves on the dance floor and in life, Tony is forced to face the consequences of his choices, his relationships and whether dancing is his future.
“Fuck the Future!”
That strut. That hair. That tight, white suit. It’s pop culture, it’s iconic, it’s Saturday night at the disco. John Badham’s Saturday Night Fever was released in 1977 when large masses were screaming: “death to disco!” The success of the film prevented that from happening.
The film follows Tony Manero (John Travolta), a foul-mouthed, 20-year old from Brooklyn who finds joy on the dance floor every Saturday night. His days are spent stirring up trouble with his friends, working at a paint store and fighting with his family. At the 2001 Odyssey, a club in Brooklyn, Tony commands attention and admiration. He’s liquid sex on the dance floor, spinning, thrusting and sliding. The ladies love Tony and Tony loves who he becomes under the disco ball. But when he meets Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney) she refuses to talk or dance with him, challenging his worth. “You’re a cliché,” she tells him. “You’re nowhere, on your way to no place.” See, she has dreams. Dreams that involve life on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge. And what does Tony have? He has disco, man. And when he finally gets Stephanie to agree to enter a dance competition with him, Tony is ready to achieve his dream. But as he begins to examine the people and choices around him, Tony is forced to question whether his dream will get him anywhere.
The film can be categorized as a musical, but utilizes music in an interesting way. While characters do not burst into song, the music that plays over a scene is incredibly significant, underscoring important emotions and feelings. Songs are played in their entirety while Tony showcases his stellar dance moves in visually fascinating shots. Amazing choreography, angles and editing display some of the most electric dancing seen in a musical. The Bee Gees’ thumping baseline and falsetto cries are heard all over the soundtrack, stamping their mark on the era of disco. The lyrics to their songs not only emphasize the boiling hot emotions of Tony and his friends, but also the desperation, disillusionment and unfulfilling lifestyle of the Bay Bridge youth:
“Music loud and women warm.
I’ve been kicked around since I was born.
Life goin’ nowhere. Somebody help me.”
As the song screams, “we’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive,” Tony, in a moment of clarity muses, “There are ways of killin’ yourself without killin’ yourself.”
America in the late 70s was experiencing the effects of the Vietnam War, Watergate and a recession. American citizens were starting to focus on the consequences of their choices as well as the choices that were available to them. While Saturday Night Fever was about fun, escapism and hedonism it was also about the choices one can make in order to grow or accept the status quo. As Tony starts to examine the choices of his parents, his older brother who leaves the priesthood and his friends who repeat the mistakes of the past, he realizes the quiet acceptance present in his life. Tony doesn’t win because he earns it; he gets the prize because he’s popular. And for Tony, he wants to earn his place on the top like he earned his four dollar raise. Because for him, the only time “someone told me I was good in my life [was] this raise today, and dancing at the disco!”
The film alternates from the busy streets of New York to the flashing, coloured lights of the underground disco clubs. Clothes are bright, bold and flashy. Tony lovingly tends to his hair, standing up for it’s right to look fresh against the constant thumping of his father’s hand. The women are sexy, hair feathered à la Ms. Fawcett in her nipple-centric famous photo (which hangs on Tony’s wall). If one chose to enter the doors of the 2001 Odyssey, they had better look good. The high steel pillars of the Brooklyn Bridge at night where the boys challenge their mortality are contrasted with the strobe lights and disco balls where the boys challenge their longevity. And during the week, on days that aren’t Saturday, life goes on; simple, boring and repetitive.
The plot isn’t incredibly original with most characters displaying little self-awareness. But John Travolta manages to give a racist, sexist, cocky character a sense of vulnerability, which ultimately carries the film. The character of Tony isn’t heroic, or even likable, but he questions his world, and that requires some courage. Winning the dance competition is supposed to validate his dreams, but instead Tony is forced to accept his superficial status, the rape of a girl he could’ve have protected and the loss of a friend who needed him. Disillusioned, angry and frustrated he rides a subway into the night, ending up at Stephanie’s apartment. And finally, he brings himself to do what he failed to before: sincerely ask for forgiveness, friendship and help.
Sometimes cheesy, but thoroughly entertaining, Saturday Night Fever is a film that can hold up even more than thirty years after it’s original release. Through the marriage of music and cinema, this film takes a journey into adulthood from the eyes of a brash, passionate kid searching for purpose. It successfully captures the energy, joy and electricity of the underground disco era and the youth that lived for the music.
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