It was 35 years ago today of the release of Saturday Night Fever, a film that introduced the masses to the pulsating beat of disco music and all the attitudinal and fashion accoutrements that went with it, made a superstar out of John Travolta, and spawned a soundtrack which became one of the biggest selling records of all time.
Contemporarily, in its consistent airings on channels like VH1 Classic and TBS since the original release in the theaters, Saturday Night Fever is quite a different film than the one seen by many generations who discovered it for the first time on those cable circuits. To them mostly, they have seen a somewhat watered down version of a film that in its uncut state, remains almost brutal and unapologetic, underneath its fluffy, musical surface levels.
Saturday Night Fever is actually a film about a confused youth, one Tony Manero, (expertly portrayed by Travolta, who was nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars for his characterization), who is on a directionless path in his young teenage life (he’s only 19), experiencing growing pains at every turn, working a dead-end job in a paint store which he still handles with grace, charm and effortless congeniality, who finds solace and an emotional outlet at the local discotheque in his hometown of Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, New York. At this disco, he is literally treated as King due to his dancing, which electrifies the large crowds that congregate there every Saturday night. Manero (in the original R-Rated version) is one part charismatic, enigmatic, magnetic, and gorgeous in his physicality and two parts naïve, misogynistic, egotistical, brash, crude, and even racist. His friends are of no help to him, only enabling his bad misspent youth behavior. Upon meeting Stephanie (played by Karen Lynn Gorney), who although not that far from Tony in age, but light years ahead in terms of direction, Manero starts to slowly question the repetition of his existence and finds himself at a crossroad.
Rhythmically vibrating to the beat of a disco score, within an extremely non-dated Brooklyn milieu (save for the ’70’s fashions) in which pseudo alpha males tramp all over their atmosphere, Saturday Night Fever is a film that not only represents a certain kind of zeitgeist of the late 1970s, but stands as a classic movie musical, a launching pad for Travolta’s stardom. The film is anchored by flawless direction from UK born John Badham (Blue Thunder, Short Circuit, Wargames) who wisely exploits the sexuality and charisma of Travolta at every turn (he totally dominates every scene he’s in, which is pretty much every one of them, regardless if he’s the focal point or not, even during a subplot which borders on tragedy by the film’s end) and has a flair for mood and tone, (street scenes out of the disco are filmed in a realistic light; scenes in the disco have a color schemed, soft focus, almost surreal fantasy quality to them) and a sharp, tough, honest portrayal of streetlife script by Norman Wexler (who co-penned the Al Pacino film Serpico and adapted the screenplay from a 1976 New York Magazine article about the ritualistic lifestyle of disco-ites written by British journalist Nik Cohn) and produced by Australian music mogul Robert Stigwood, who almost managed The Beatles at one point.
Saturday Night Fever also influenced scores of imitations of films and television shows of this stripe which followed shortly after the success of Fever as well, which were mostly laughable projects: Roller Boogie, the short lived television show Makin’ It, and the life at a disco barely with a few chuckles Thank God It’s Friday.
It also spawned a soundtrack album which was wisely released before the film, creating a buzz and scores of hits. In fact, in the early to mid part of 1978, the album stayed atop the number one spot, and remained on the Billboard charts for a mindboggling 120 weeks, finally falling off in March of 1980, and eventually selling more than 15 million copies, amazing numbers when you consider that the original album was a double-record set. It was one of the earliest examples of cross promotion, using music to sell a picture and vice versa, and the only other instance one could relate to it was the way the television musical sitcom group The Monkees were promoted, which was pretty much in the same fashion.
The soundtrack largely contained the music of The Bee Gees, who had already been a successful pop/light rock group for years prior to its release and also catapulted them to a success stratosphere akin to Travolta’s. Songs like “More Than A Woman,” “Night Fever,” “You Should Be Dancing,” (which accompanies the solo dance scene in the disco by Travolta), the beautifully aching and tender ballad “How Deep Is Your Love” and the song which opens the film, “Stayin’ Alive,” which plays over the now cinematic folklore beginning, as Travolta struts down 86th Street in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, paint can in tow, bopping on the pavement to the musically throbbing sounds of the song. Also with The Bee Gees, the soundtrack sported one-hit wonders in Jesus Christ Superstar lead Yvonne Elliman belting the soaring track “If I Can’t Have You,” the R&B Earth, Wind and Fire-styled Tavares with their version of “More Than A Woman,” KC and The Sunshine Band rolling the quarter-notes out with “Boogie Shoes,” and the Trammps doing the aptly named, red hot four on the floor “Disco Inferno.” David Shire, who had scored such films as Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and the memorably intense original 1974 version of The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3, contributes the instrumental interludes interspersed throughout the film, “Manhattan Skyline” being a standout.
Upon its release on December 14, 1977, the film was an instant critical and financial success. Well-respected critics of the time, the late Gene Siskel and Pauline Kael to name two, had nothing but praise for the production, especially the break-out performance by Travolta. For Siskel, the movie became an obsessive love; he even bought Travolta’s famed white disco suit at an auction years later, a prized possession. And for the fans, millions upon millions of them, became disco disciples and denizens, almost singlehandedly due to the release of this film. The national fabric of the time, which was also seeing the birth of punk music and the classic rock stalwarts of a few years past still hanging in and releasing classic memorable albums, was knee deep in the disco fever manifested by Saturday Night Fever.
So don your boogie shoes today, get up to get down, relive a classic film, a classic musical, with an adult narrative (in its original version) and witness again the invincibility of Travolta’s performance and groove with the A to Z songs which almost play out like a complete history of the disco genre. The original tag line on the poster for Saturday Night Fever bears the legend “Where Do You Go When The Record Is Over?” 35 years later, with the hindsight now fully entrenched with us, the staying power of the film, and the subcultural lifestyle of Saturday Night Fever shows that there’s still plenty of places to go as the music will never be over, the records and the film will play into perpetuity and will always be a gargantuan footnote of the 1970s, but also transcending it, as it remains much more than just an artifact of that memorable decade.
Saturday Night Fever is available in DVD and Blu-ray; the soundtrack is available on CD and MP3.
Happy Anniversary, Saturday Night Fever, here’s to the next 35 years.