The best reason to see Saturday Night Fever, either again or the first time, is that it’s probably not the movie you remember. When I bring up the disco-themed 1977 blockbuster, people immediately remember John Travolta tearing up the dance floor and little else. This is understandable, as Travolta’s thrilling, graceful dance moves, the Bee Gees-driven soundtrack (one of the biggest selling of all time) and its depiction of the disco age are what made it a giant, R2-D2-free hit in year dominated by the arrival of the original Star Wars. Yet, while the expected highlights are there (the opening titles glow in neon as Travolta struts to “Stayin’ Alive”), Saturday Night Fever isn’t a comedy or a jukebox musical but a tough drama about a troubled teen ager’s dark journey to adulthood.
Travolta was 23 when he played 19-year old Tony Manero, the Brooklyn teen who works in a paint store all day, so he and his buddies can spend their paychecks womanizing and dancing at the local disco. One of Travolta’s first lines is “F— the future,” a clear indication Manero shares the same the live-for-the-moment-and-nothing-more mentality of his knucklehead pals. When Manero meets Stephanie, another talented dancer (played by Karen Lynn Gorney, in an unpolished gem of a performance), he begins to take his life seriously. Manero ditches his long suffering girlfriend (Donna Pescow, in a heartbreaking performance), practices daily with Stephanie for an upcoming contest and, for the first time in his life, inches towards a meaningful relationship not based on sex.
John Badham’s film has nightclub scenes that still dazzle (particularly Travolta’s amazing solo dance to “You Should Be Dancing”) and the camera often glides along with the dancers, capturing the sensuality of movement. Yet, the filmmaking isn’t showy or cynical. This is one of those low budget event films that was made from the ground up, as no one involved knew what a cultural landmark they were shaping. Badham, a journeyman filmmaker whose best works include the Frank Langella version of Dracula, WarGames, Stakeout, the underrated Michael J. Fox comedy The Hard Way and the Johnny Depp vehicle Nick of Time, was the perfect director for this.
Scenes of Manero’s home life are refreshing and raw, as his tight-knit Italian Catholic family frequently lashes out at one another. When we see Manero’s bedroom, it’s a monument to everything ’70s teens idolized: posters for Rocky, Bruce Lee, Wonder Woman, Serpico and Farrah Fawcett. His life outside his room offers a vivid snapshot of New York as an edgy, dangerous playground.
Travolta’s transition from the cuddly Vinnie Barbarino on the sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter to dramatic lead was as earth-shaking a TV-to-film transition as that of Leonardo DiCaprio. Travolta’s following movie was Grease (another mammoth hit) but his work here resulted in his first Oscar nomination and is far richer. Manero, to put it nicely, is a sleazy dirt bag and Travolta never shies away from that.
Although a heavily sanitized PG version was later released, Saturday Night Fever in its original form (and now, in its Director’s Cut), is a very-hard R. Manero and his buddies have nightly conversations that are profane, racist, sexist and homophobic. There are sexually explicit scenes scattered throughout. Travolta may have been a pin-up star when he made this but Manero is complex and rough around the edges–so is the movie. Prepare yourself: the dancing scenes dazzle but there’s nothing cute or campy here.
Saturday Night Fever isn’t a title most would think of when naming off the best films of the 1970’s, a list that includes The Godfather, The Last Picture Show and Manhattan. Yet Badham’s highly influential film is an undisputed classic and deserving of rediscovery. Its closest cinematic cousin isn’t Dirty Dancing, Footloose or Step Up but the equally hard-nosed drama 8 Mile.
You can see Saturday Night Fever on Sunday, May 7 and Wednesday, May 10 at the Maui Mall Megaplex. Showtimes are 2pm and 7pm on both days.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons