CINEMA CLASSICS: Saturday Night Fever (1977)

Liam remembers the 70s with John Travolta’s kitsch milestone. 

Who made it?: John Badham (Director), Norman Wexler (Writer), Robert Stigwood (Producer), Robert Stigwood Organization/Paramount Pictures.

Who’s in it?: John Travolta, Karen Lynn Gorney, Barry Miller, Joseph Cali, Paul Pape, Donna Pescow, Bruce Ornstein. 

Tagline: “Where do you go when the record is over…”

IMDb rating: 6.8/10.

In 1977, Tony Manero (John Travolta), a nineteen-year-old Italian-American from Bay Ridge Brooklyn, NY, is lacking direction and living with his squabbling parents whilst working a dead-end job in a paint store. He lives only for the weekend when, for every Saturday night, he is elevated to the status of local celebrity showcasing his precocious talent as an ace “Disco dancer” at the local discotheque, taking advantage of the perks that come with being the “King of the Dance Floor.” Tony and his gang “The Faces” – Double J. (Paul Pape), Joey (Joseph Cali), Gus (Bruce Ornstein), and Bobby C. (Barry Miller) - indulge in the adulation of female admirers on a regular basis before returning back to his humdrum life the next day.

At home Tony’s father Frank Sr. (Val Bisoglio) undermines his son at every opportunity, and at work, he has no motivation and is living paycheck to paycheck. Things begin to change when Tony is attracted to a new girl on the flashly-lit dance floor, Stephanie Mangano (Karen Lynn Gorney). Impressed with her dance moves, he pursues her to partner him in an upcoming dance competition, although at first she rejects his advances. sensing ulterior motives. She soon agrees, however. After a couple of unofficial dates with his new target, Stephanie, who is highly ambitious and constantly bringing up her “better” life in a Manhattan office, is thoroughly unimpressed with Tony’s lifestyle, stating ”You are nowhere on your way to no place.” Tony takes this badly, naturally, but after a later heartfelt conversation with his elder brother Frank Jr., who has quit the priesthood, and a further realisation from his boss at the paint store, he begins to change his outlook on life and distances himself further from his family. He also begins to resent his friends. Tony realises that he must take his gift by the horns and see how far it will take him.

In June of 1975, a short story by Nick Cohn titled Tribal Rights of the New Saturday Night was published in New York Magazine about blue-collar youths that visited local underground Discotheques in Brooklyn. Australian music producer Robert Stigwood, manager of the the Bee Gees who would provide the bulk of the music, had acquired the film rights for $90,000, and a screenplay was written by Norman Wexler. Travolta, who was known for his role in American sitcom Welcome Back Kotter and a small part in Carrie (1976), was to star and John G. Avildsen (who had been nominated for an Academy Award for 1976’s Rocky) was hired as director. Pre-production began with a budget of $3.5 million. Travolta was assigned dance coach, and he and choreographer Denny Terrio would lose 20lbs in weight during training.

Just before shooting was to commence, a complaint by Travolta was made to Stigwood regarding the direction. The director wanted to alter the script and the star felt that Avildsen was softening the edgy Tony Manero character, making a “dancing Rocky.” Stigwood then unceremoniously fired Avildsen. John Badham was brought in as replacement. He had a string of TV credits to his name but had only directed one feature film, The Bingo All Stars and Motor Kings (1976), starring Richard Prior and James Earl Jones. The new director did an excellent job with what he had inherited from Avildsen, immediately identifying that the production should be approached as a musical hybrid. It is noted that Avildsen left the production several weeks before shooting commenced, however, during the famous scene where Tony is narcissistically dressing in front of a mirror to the tune of the Bee Gees’ “Night Fever,” a Rocky poster is in full view on the bedroom wall, which suggests Avildsen may have done more than what is documented. It does seem that there are far more similarities to Rocky and his later hit The Karate Kid (1984) than there are to any of Badham’s future works, such as War Games (1983) and Short Circuit (1986). Rocky Balboa, Tony Manero and Daniel Larusso could almost be brothers! Ironically, Travolta would later reprise his role in the sequel Staying Alive (1983), with Sylvester Stallone as director…

Saturday Night Fever was released on December 14th, 1977, and received favourable reviews which helped it make back $237 million at the box office. There were Golden Globe and BAFTA Award nominations for the Bee Gees’ brilliant soundtrack, which remained the biggest-selling album until the release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller seven years later. The performances in the film are excellent, too. Pape, Miller and Calli are convincing in their roles as Tony’s sidekicks, Bisoglio is perfect as the out-of-work ridiculing father, and Donna Pescow gives us the sad Annette, a character who is taken advantage of. Gorney as Stephanie is also a great foil for Tony.

Badham perfectly captures the spirit of the late 70’s Disco era; the nightclub scenes are expertly shot and, coupled with the Bee Gees’ thumping anthems, portray the pure hedonism that was associated with the legendary Studio 54 at the time. Outside the disco, Badham creates a mood of disaffected youth and a feeling of disconnection. It is Travolta’s film, however, and he delivers a career-best performance as Manero. He owns the screen from the first moment to the last in an incredibly multi-layered performance ranging from comedy improvs to melodrama, creating a very likeable character. This is coupled with his thrilling dance solo to the Bee Gees’ “You Should Be Dancing,” which is one of the best ever captured on film, earning him an Oscar nomination.

One common misconception of Saturday Night Fever is that it’s a “dance film.” It could easily be described as a gritty street movie. The screenplay by Wexler is packed with rich, realistic dialogue and is full of profanity. The film is not afraid to go into deep waters, covering a range of risky subjects such as abortion, religion, suicide, rape, and gang violence for which it shares more with the British “kitchen sink” dramas of the 1960s such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). It was more than worthy of its “R” rating. Ultimately, the film has been fondly remembered in popular culture ever since, with the image of Travolta striking a pose being one of the most recognisable in movie history. The film has been referenced in Airplane! (1980), Teen Wolf (1985) and in Badham’s own Short Circuit but to name a few, and even received The Simpsons treatment in 1994. More recently, excellent Chilean film Tony Manero (2008) is about a man obsessed with Travolta’s character, and in Don Jon (2013), it is clear that Joseph Gordon Levitt found inspiration from the star’s endearing performance.

Saturday Night Fever is a product of its time. I prefer to treat it as a 70-set set film as if watching Carlito’s Way (1993) or Boogie Nights (1997). Though the music and fashion have moved on, the themes are still as strong as ever today. If you’re able to see past the Flared trousers, wide-collard shirts and mirror balls, you will see that the film is really about change. Any young man in his late teens or twenties who is finding themselves at a crossroads in life will certainly identify with Travolta’s character. For everyone else, it acts as a time capsule, an accurate portrayal of a more carefree era when you lived for the moment.

In the words of Tony, “Fuck the future!”

Best Scene

I suppose it has to be some dancing, right?

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • When Tony’s dad hit him in the back of the head the third time during dinner, his retort of “Just watch the hair!” and then his complaint about being hit on the hair after he had worked on it for so long was John Travolta’s own reaction and not scripted, but since it was so in character for Tony Manero to say, it was left in.
  • Travolta’s sister Ann Travolta appears as the pizza lady, and his mother Helen Travolta appears as the woman for whom he gets the paint.
  • Filming was almost interrupted when a local mafia group tried to extort protection from the crew. In fact, the nightclub where the film was shot was hit with a small firebomb.
  • This was the first mainstream Hollywood movie in which the term “blowjob” was used.
  • The white polyester suit worn by Travolta sold at auction for $145,000 and purchased by movie critic Gene Siskel. Siskel often said that this was his favorite film and that he had watched it seventeen times.

Liam Brennan

Film buff, aspiring screenwriter and filmmaker.

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