Tuesday, 15 May 2012

FILM REVIEW

Saturday Night Fever (1977)

This film is my contribution to Tuesday’s Overlooked/Forgotten films and television over at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom. Don't forget to check out the other fascinating entries over there.

Saturday Night Fever is the kind of film you liked the first time you saw it, which was probably in high school or college. I watched the dance film in my teens and remember liking it as well. Since the 1990s, the movie has been shown a few times on television. I have tried watching it again, to see if it still had the same appeal, and each time I have switched channels for something better. Clearly, it no longer holds. 


Last week, I saw a part of Saturday Night Fever and was, quite frankly, put off by Brooklyn brat Tony Manero’s (John Travolta) acrobats on the dance floor and his antics off it. If you see the film again three decades later, you’ll realise there’s not much dance that you can tap your feet too. You see better dancing now which is only to be expected. When Tony is not shaking his 6' 2" frame to Bee Gees music, he is either fighting with his father who doesn’t like his wayward life or indulging in reckless behaviour with friends, drinking, cussing, raping, and street fighting.

Tony Manero wants something out of his life and a job at a hardware store clearly isn’t what he has in mind. So each night he heads for the nightclub where his two feet bring out the best in him. Dancing partners are no problem as he dumps old-hand Annette (Donna Pescow) for Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), a level-headed woman who wards off his sexual overtures.
 


The death of his close friend Bobby C. (Barry Miller) on a Brooklyn bridge, during a particular night of rape and revelry, comes as a wakeup call for Tony who realises that life is not all about fighting street gangs or bedding women as he likes. He decides to straighten out his life but not without a last dance.

In many ways Tony Manero reminds you of that other struggling Brooklyn kid, Danny Fisher, the hero of A Stone for Danny Fisher (1952) by Harold Robbins, who dreams of making it big.

For me, the saving grace of Saturday Night Fever is the music by the Bee Gees right from the time the credits roll and Tony is walking towards his hardware store with a can of paint in his hand, his feet moving in rhythm with Stayin’ Alive playing in the background. That walk is what made Travolta famous.

 
John Travolta was only 24 when Saturday Night Fever made him a superstar and he followed it up a year later by the box-office hit Grease opposite Olivia Newton-John (though I prefer the 1982-hit Grease 2 starring Maxwell Caulfield and Michelle Pfeiffer).

Directed by John Badham in 1977, the film went on to become one of the most successful musical hits of all time. Even Travolta wasn’t prepared for it. As he said in an interview, “I just didn't think it would be the big hit. I thought it was too small a slice of life, reflection of humanity of the suburbs of New York and I didn't think there would be a lot of people interested in that. But the music and the dancing and everyone identifying with a young person struggle with identity allowed it to become this big deal that it became worldwide. But it was a surprise to me.”

12 comments:

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  2. Travolta was already rising by the time SNF came out...he was the breakout star of the (rather weak, but I liked it initially...and it grew in popularity as it worsened, as did much US tv in the 1970s) sitcom WELCOME BACK, KOTTER.

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  3. The pleasure of this film was watching it on the big screen in a theater full of people. Disco still delights me when I hear, I guess because it begs to be danced to. But stories about coming of age in one of the NYC boroughs has never had much appeal for this Nebraska farm boy. The music is what saved this one for me. Thanks.

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  4. It's easy to like Pfeiffer in even the most contrived films, I'd suggest...WOLF comes to mind, somehow...thanks, Prashant.

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  5. I adored this movie from the first shot of him walking with the paint can.

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  6. Todd, I don't remember WELCOME BACK, KOTTER and that may be because Indian cable TV hasn’t shown much of the 60s and 70s US sitcoms. I think DYNASTY and THREE’S COMPANY marked the advent of satellite television out here. Otherwise, it’s been mostly British TV serials. Now, of course, we get to see many of the serials currently running in the US.

    I liked Travolta in his latter films like FACEOFF, PULP FICTION, WILD HOGS, THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1 2 3, BROKEN ARROW and SWORDFISH. He’s good at comedy, as in “Wild Hogs”, but he’s even better as a villain. I don’t think I have seen WOLF — will have to check it out.

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  7. I remember liking it too the first time I saw it. Haven't ever rewatched it though.

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  8. Ron, I watched this film in the theatre too and at the time everyone wanted to dance like Travolta. The Bee Gees cassettes became very popular. I remember we used to copy the songs from one tape recorder to another (Sony or National Panasonic) without a connecting cord so you had all kinds of external sounds creeping into the music.

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  9. Patti, a lot of people did. A family friend who saw the film before we did couldn't stop talking about that first scene which, incidentally, would have been a dud without the background score.

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  10. Charles, the Bee Gees are still quite popular in India and you often hear mobile phones ringing to the "Stayin' Alive" tune though the namesake 1983 sequel is no longer fresh in memory.

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  11. Thanks Prashant - this is a film that is well worth looking into in detail since the disco image is largely at odds with the fairly seamy content of the bulk of the film. I reremember when it came out in the cinemas here in the UK they released a special cut of the film aimed at younger viewers who were attracted by themusic and dancing and then realised that it had been classed as an adult film (rightly) and being turned away.

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  12. Sergio, thanks for the feedback. SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, GREASE 1 & 2, and STAYIN' ALIVE in many ways spawned the disco culture in India. I agree the film has "seamy content" which I realised only after I had seen it in parts subsequently. I didn't think much of the "adult scenes" or the cuss words the first time I saw it. Guess I was enjoying the music and dance then.

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