One of the most iconic films of the seventies is Saturday Night Fever. With its numerous dance scenes and colorful club scenes, this film immortalized the disco era. Its soundtrack was the highest selling until Michael Jackson’s Thriller. And it was the debut of many young actors, including John Travolta.
John Travolta stars as Tony Manero, a nineteen year old kid in Brooklyn who lives for lighting up the dance floor on the weekends. Working at a small hardware store, he has no higher aspirations but dancing in disco clubs and making it with girls. In his spare time, he goes to a dance studio to work on his moves for the upcoming competition. He dumps his partner Annette (Donna Pescow), the girl who always hangs around him and his friends, for a girl with some different moves. Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney) is planning on moving to Manhattan and is already working there, hobnobbing with some big names. She is more cultured and ambitious than Tony and isn’t afraid to let him know it. But the more the two clash, the more they connect, and not just on the dance floor.
While most people will instantly recognize the music and that white suit with fondness, many might not expect the film to become so gritty and dark. That’s right, Saturday Night Fever is far from a feel good dance flick. Throughout the film we are shown an increasingly dark side of living for a weekend full of dancing, booze and girls. The car the guys drive is where they take girls they just met out for a quick throw while parked on the curb. Tony’s family has fallen on hard times and isn’t very supportive of his partying lifestyle, even less so after his older brother decides to leave the priesthood. And one of Tony’s friends, Bobby C (Barry Miller), gets more and more desperate for friends and advice after he gets a girl pregnant. These Saturday nights can get pretty rough.
What most people watch this film for is the dance scenes and the music. They are quite a sight to see; disco balls spinning, floors lighting up in perfect rhythm with Travolta’s moves and polyester everywhere. The soundtrack is one of the best that comes to my memory. This film has does some wonders mixing music and images that are so true of its era. The most colorful dance scenes are to classic Bee Gees songs, including Staying Alive, More Than a Woman and How Deep Is Your Love. You’ll also hear If I Can’t Have You by Yvonne Elliman, Disco Inferno by The Trammps and that disco version of Beethoven, A Fifth of Beethoven. One of my favorite uses for a song is when a disco version of Night on Bald Mountain plays as the boys pull some scary stunts on the Brooklyn Bridge. This film has does some wonders mixing music and images that are so true of its era.
At the Academy Awards, Saturday Night Fever was only nominated for one Oscar. A very young and lean John Travolta was nominated for best actor for his portrayal of Tony. Between the intense choreography and more goofy moments (“Attica! Attica!”), Travolta molds Tony into more than a dancing kid. He turns his lack of ambition into teenage angst and his rocky relationships into anger and finally a catalyst for change. There is so much more dimension here than you’d expect from a disco crazed kid from Brooklyn.
While the Academy had little love for the film, it is remembered as an essential. It is a part of Roger Ebert’s great movies lists, as well as on the AFI’s 100 Songs list. In my mind the best dance flick of all time. Most of all, I love the way it preserves the disco era in all its colorful, polyester glory with a dark and robust story about so much more than dancing.
“My girlfriend, she loves the taste of communion wafers.”
I was absolutely nuts about this movie when it came out…and I hated disco! This had to be the only time in my entire existence where I watched and listened to disco and thoroughly loved it. It was an extraordinarily dark & sensitive portrayal by a deservedly-Oscar-nominated John Travolta as the blue-collar guy from Brooklyn looking for something better in his life. Yes, It really did deserve more Academy recognition particularly in its scoring, perfect period-costumes, and direction. I also thought that Barry Miller deserved recognition for his supporting performance as the twerp who starts out as kind of a joke, and ends up as a really tragic figure. Very moving story! One incident to share: when I went to see this for a second viewing with some friends to a local Denver theater, a couple of us were in the lobby after the flick doing the “Travolta strut” when I heard some howls of laughter and turned to see 5 of my students from the local High School much amused to see their counselor behaving so in public…needless to say, I never quite lived that one down; but to this day I still love the movie and have fond memories of “back in the day” when I first saw it. The cast is just perfect and it really is a snapshot of a moment in time!
Good to know those who hated disco still enjoyed this movie. And what a hilarious story! I bet your students never forgot that. Thanks for sharing.