Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Saturday Night Fever: A 40th Anniversary Retrospect

Source: Paramount Pictures
  In celebration of its 40th anniversary I wanted to offer a retrospective review of Saturday Night Fever, a film that I not only consider to be one of my favorite films, but also one that still stands as one of the great contemporary dramas of all time. Throughout the history of film there have been movies that not only tell a great story but also connect so strongly to their audiences that they leave an influence on popular culture that is seldom forgotten. Saturday Night Fever not only resonated with its audience, it became an iconic symbol of 1970's culture that made disco the musical sensation of the world and disco clubs the place to be in practically every corner of the globe.

   In 1955 James Dean's Rebel Without A Cause became the celluloid embodiment of the youth movement of it's time. Shortly following the movies release people were wearing their hair like James Dean and trying to dress, walk , and talk like him too. Fast forward to 1976 when entertainment entrepreneur Robert Stigwood was inspired to develop a film treatment of an article written by Nik Cohn in New York magazine entitled "Tribal Rites of  the New Saturday Night", a story about the underground disco nightlife. Stigwood saw a tremendous opportunity to turn this story into a successful movie and knew the perfect face to sell the picture to the public- John Travolta, star of TV's "Welcome Back Kotter". Travolta met with Stigwood about the movie and after reading the script he was confident this could be his big break into feature films.Travolta immersed himself into the project by training to get in shape as well as spending countless hours working with dance instructor Danny Terrio to become the silver screen's ultimate disco dancer. His hard work and effort were rewarded in spades. Saturday Night Fever turned Travolta into an international sensation, Golden Globe winner, Academy Award nominee, and the face of an entire generation. Like James Dean before him, he became the image that everyone wanted to be.

 Saturday Night Fever tells the story of Tony Manero from Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, New York. Tony is a relatively immature young adult who lives a simple life working at a paint store and spending his nights hanging out with his friends who proudly call themselves "The Faces".  While most of his friends are happy with living their day to day lives Tony is convinced that there is more to life and he believes his ticket to a bigger and better world lies on the other side of the Verrazano Bridge in Manhattan. Tony's problem is he has not yet figured out what he can do to make the leap into this better life he envisions, but what he does have going for him is his dancing. At the local disco, named 2001, Tony is the king of the dance floor and the guy everybody comes to see. Women are constantly throwing themselves at him, especially his old flame and current dance partner Annette (played by Donna Pescow), until the night he encounters Stephanie Mangano (played by Karen Lynn Gorney). Tony is intrigued by Stephanie and once she makes it clear to him that she is not going to be one of the women swooning over him he can't resist the urge to get to know her. Tony's persistence eventually convinces her to meet up with him for some coffee. During their sit down he senses right away that she is the epitome of what he wants to be- someone from the blue collar part of town that got a break on the other side of the tracks and is succeeding in life. He eventually builds up the courage to ask her to be his dance partner in an upcoming dance contest at 2001 with the hope that dancing together will bring them closer as a couple. His plan finds some success as Stephanie slowly sees herself becoming more drawn to Tony than she previously thought, but unfortunately for Tony each time she gets closer to him his immature, and reckless, lifestyle manages to rear up and remind her that he represents everything that she has worked hard to leave in her past and avoid in her future. For Tony, the harder he tries to pursue the life he has dreamed of and strengthen his relationship with Stephanie, his current reality pulls him further away from his dream and eventually he is forced to make a choice between continuing with the life he is living or walk away from everything and everyone in order to take a chance at the life he hopes to have.

 Saturday Night Fever is superbly cast and each actor provides a wonderful sense of realism to their characters. John Travolta gives the performance of a lifetime as Tony and he is so powerful on screen that he makes everyone around him even better than they are on their own. Director John Badham, who was not even the original director chosen to make the film, gives the film the right amount of grittiness with an equal amount of sensitivity when the scenes call for it. The soundtrack, a multi-platinum selling sensation, provides a whole other layer of narrative to the story and adds flavor and excitement at all the right times. The opening credits sequence alone perfectly sets the connection of music to story and it never loses pace. David Rawlins editing is spot on and Ralf D. Bode's cinematography puts the viewer front and center of the disco dancing experience unlike anything else (the line dancing sequence that runs with the Bee Gee's hit "Night Fever" is breath taking).

 The film does have some disturbing elements when viewing it for the first time- the dialogue is loaded with profanity, slandering racist attitudes, as well as some harsh, cruel and insensitive behavior towards women (most of these elements were a sad by-product of the time the film was made). While a lot of these attitudes and actions are not a reflection on the actors who portrayed them, they do contribute to the gritty realism within the context of the story that gives this movie a harder edge that initially might not be expected of it. To the unknowing viewer this movie can easily be dismissed as a mindless, music blaring dance movie that was only meant to promote record sales (just reference 1978's Thank God It's Friday to drive home my point). But the story that drives Saturday Night Fever, Tony's dream to become something more than he is forced to accept, is it's strongest attribute that has been sadly overshadowed over the years by the constraints of the films identity as the benchmark of the 1970's disco craze.

 I strongly encourage you, if you have never watched Saturday Night Fever, take the time to watch it. If you are someone who has let years go by without seeing it again, I equally encourage you to revisit it and enjoy a true triumph of drama, dance, romance, and tragedy. Additionally, if you want to avoid the disturbing elements of the film previously mentioned, there was a re-released, PG rated version that did find its way to home video but maybe a little harder to find.

When Saturday Night Fever was released in 1977 the poster campaign's slogan was "Saturday Night Fever- Catch It"- I hope you do the same.

Reel Rating (Out of A Possible Four):      

Roy's Reel Of Fame Selection 

*Editor's Note- This review is affectionately dedicated to the late Gene Siskel, co-host of the hugely successful movie review television series "Siskel & Ebert" (the show ran from 1986-2010 but sadly Gene passed away in 1999). Gene proudly proclaimed Saturday Night Fever as one of his favorite films of all time and there's no doubt that his glowing review of the film upon it's release played a part in it's positive critical reception back in 1977.*
Gene Siskel is pictured her (on the right) alongside of his co-host and longtime friend Roger Ebert
Source: PBS via Photofest



  1. Great review my man. People seem to forget what a strong drama this really is. I'm glad you highlighted that, the fact that the sheen of the movie tends to overshadow what is really at its core, which in this case really has nothing to do with disco but rather runs much deeper. This could have been a simple piece of popcorn fluff just based on the concept. Thankfully the creative powers behind it decided to fill it with so much more.