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.”