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Saturday Night Fever

Directed by John Badham and based on Nik Cohn's magazine article "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night," with John Travolta, Karen Lynn Gorney and Donna Pescow, 118 minutes, color, 1977

DVD cover

Cover of 30th anniversary DVD

By Carter B. Horsley

"Saturday Night Fever" has the greatest soundtrack and the greatest opening sequence in film history.

The movie opens with a close-up of a pair of men's shoes walking at a determined pace in perfect sync with some really peppy music.

The shoes are on the feet of John Travolta, the star of the movie who had previously only been known for "Welcome Back Kotter," a not terribly brilliant television show.

We quickly can see that we're not on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan but somewhere in one of New York's large boroughs. It could be the Bronx, or Queens, but it is Brooklyn and not downtown Brooklyn but perhaps Bensonhurst or Bay Ridge, neigbhorhoods far removed from the sophistication of "On the Town."

The camera zooms backwards so we can conjure the full manhood of Travolta: a lean body wrapped in tight clothes and topped by a large crop of hair. He is not handsome in any traditional sense, but he does exude sex appeal.

The movie tells the story of a young, uncultured man who is a very good dancer, good enough to get just about any young girl at the local disco to dance with him and to gather about him an adoring pack of less gifted young men. To win the top dancing prize at the disco is a worthy goal for Travolta whose life does not really have any holy grails.

Travolta's character preens himself for Saturday night at the disco and when he gets there and steps onto the dance floor he transforms from a gangly but well-pressed teen into an electrifying dancing machine

Many of his moves, gestures and poses are a bit dated, but while his choreography is not always inspired it is definitely on the beat. If one looks carefully, one can discover that there are other people on the dance floor who are very good dancers, perhaps even as good in some of their moves as Travolta, but he has an "attitude," a sense of showmanship, that feeds off good competition.

The movie did not start the disco craze, of course, but it catapulted it into the rites of the night, the prelude to a climax, and indeed one of Travolta's "moves" is spinning his hands in front of him like a "choo-choo" building up power as it sets off on its powerful way.

The movie is not perfect. It focuses exclusively on men dancing, in a pair, with women, whereas in New York City in the late 1970s a sizable portion of the dance floor population danced with their own sex, or, more rarely, by themselves, studs showing off for their herd.

The Bee Gees were well-established as a popular group long before this movie, but the soundtrack for this movie, the biggest selling "album" of all-time at that point, transformed them into "magic." This writer, for example, was convinced that the lead singer had to be a women, not realizing initially that the group consisted of three brothers. The "magic," of course, was not so superficial.

Virtually every song on the album went, as they say, "to the top of the charts," and for anyone with any sense of rhythm the vast majority of these songs were totally irresistible: one had to move, to get up, and dance, perhaps with someone, or by oneself, and not with discrete steps in small spaces, but with explosive swirls and closed eyes because, better watch out, you owned the dance floor as you shifted from cloud to cloud.

For many views of the movie when it first came out, it was something of a let-down because they were already very familiar with the music and many of the best songs are hard to hear completely in the movie as they are faded in or out or lowered in the mix. Furthermore, much of the movie does not take place in the disco and the amount of dancing is considerably less than one might have expected.

The story itself, without the disco, might make a grade B Italian movie: a realistic take on the ennui of lower-class youth and their misogyny. That is a bit unfair. Travolta's mother in the movie is mocked for some of her beliefs but remains a relatively positive, if not pathetic figure, especially with regard to her husband who is a brutish dolt who angers Travolta when he hits his head unmindful of his coiffed hair. Travolta's attitude towards Donna Pescow's character is certainly not gentlemanly, but he does hold Karen Lynn Gornley's character is considerable regard because she works in Manhattan and has some sophistication. The movie, however, is not terribly romantic, but it is very gutsy. Travolta's gang gets into a brutal fight and the dumbest member jumps off the Verranzano Bridge because he's impregnated his girlfriend.

There are some moments in the film that really work well.

In his 1999 review of the movie, for example, Roger Ebert notes that:

"There is a scene in the movie where the hero, Tony Manero, sits on a bench with Stephanie, the girl he loves, and tells her all about one of the bridges out of Brooklyn: Its height, length, how many cubic yards of concrete went into its making--and you can taste his desire to cross that bridge and leave Brooklyn behind. Earlier, Stephanie has described him in a few brutal words: 'You live with your parents, you hang with your buddies and on Saturday nights you burn it all off at 2001 Odyssey. You're a cliche. You're nowhere, goin' no place.'' Tony senses that she is right."

In another part of his review, Ebert provides the following observations:

"The movie's plot involves his choice between Annette (Donna Pescow), the girl who loves him, and Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), the girl who works in Manhattan and represents his dream of class....I've always thought Annette was a better choice for Tony than Stephanie, because Annette has fewer delusions. ('Why do you hate me so much,' she asks him, 'when all I ever did was like you?') But Tony can't see that because he can't really see women at all, and in the cruel closing scenes he makes a half-hearted attempt to rape Stephanie, and then sits in the front seat of a car while Annette is being raped in the back by two of his buddies. Of course, at that time, in that milieu, perhaps it wasn't considered rape, but only an energetic form of courtship."

Indeed, it should be remembered that when the movie came out in 1977, Manhattan was totally obsessed with the wild, drug-infused euphoria of Steve Rubell's and Ian Shrager's Studio 54, the nightly late-night hangout for well-dressed celebrities and newspaper editors, back in the carefree days before AIDS. (See The City Review article on Anthony Haden-Guest's book on the famous disco.)

It is interesting that the movie's fascination with common folk predates the television shows of "American Idol" and various dance contests by several decades. Travolta's classic pose with his legs spread apart and his right hand pointing heavenwards is, at one point in the film, done of the entire "ensemble" of disco dancers in the best "spirit" of the Rockettes: a homogenization of talent that makes over-produced minor talents like Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston so irritating because of their lack of originality.

How original was Travolta's dancing? There are some parts that are wonderful as when he gyrates his hips with his body at a backwards slant and there are some parts that are just plain awkward and unattractive as when he opens and closes his knees. The movie is, of course, pretty honest in showing him practicing moves with his partners. It is a very rare genius that can be completely spontaneous and mesmerizing graceful and surprising. Even Baryshnikov understands the importance of choreography.

In the final of the dance competition at the 2001 Odyssey disco, Travolta and Gorney win the top prize of $500, but in a surprise twist, Travolta gives the prize to the second-place team, a Puerto Rican couple, that he insists was better, a noble act that suggests that Travolta's character in the film may have more depth than we've imagined.

In his review of the film at epinions.com, Brian Koller wrote that "The cultural impact of Saturday Night Fever was immense. Today, the film defines an era: platform shoes, polyester shirts, big blow-dried hair, disco music, white suits, and strutting down the street," adding that according to the Internet Movie Database, Karen Lynn Gorney "later moved in with director Badham."

"'Saturday Night Fever,'" Koller continued, "was blessed with a number of great Bee Gee songs ('Staying Alive', 'Night Fever', 'How Deep is Your Love', 'More Than a Woman'). The Gibb brothers also wrote another important song from the film, 'If I Can't Have You' (performed by Yvonne Elliman). Four of these five songs would later become number one singles. "More Than a Woman" probably would have as well, but the Bee Gees shelved it so as not to compete with a version by Tavares."

Another non-Bee Gees song in the movie was "Disco Inferno."

"Amazingly," Mr. Koller observed, "none of the songs, nor the soundtrack itself, was nominated for an Academy Award. (The winner of Best Song that year went to maudlin, syrupy 'You Light Up My Life.') "

Travolta was nominated for an Oscar for best actor and he would go on the next year to more and better dancing in "Grease" with Olivia Newton-John.

"Saturday Night Fever" has the same grittiness as Budd Shulberg's "On the Waterfront," Sly Stallone's "Rocky," and John Wayne's "The Searchers."

John Travolta is great in this movie. The Bee Gees are great in this movie. Together they are unforgettable, inexorable forces propelled by the force of life whose achievements cannot be simply measured.

This film is ranked 50th in Carter B. Horsley's list Top 500 Sound Films


Click here to order the 30th anniversary DVD from amazon.com for 25 percent off its 19.99 list price

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